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Robert Johnson Biography

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Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous Delta Blues musicians and arguably the most influential. Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock-and-Roll," his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style influenced a range of musicians, including Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, U2, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived."

Of all the great blues musicians, Johnson was probably the most obscure. All that is known of him for certain is that he recorded 29 songs; he died young; and he was one of the greatest bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta.

There are only five dates in Johnson's life that can undeniably be used to assign him to a place in history: Monday, November 23; Thursday, November 26; and Friday, November 27, 1936, he was in San Antonio, Texas, at a recording session. Seven months later, on Saturday, June 19 and Sunday, June 20, 1937, he was in Dallas at another session. Everything else about his life is an attempt at reconstruction. As director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's play 'Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson', "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."

Johnson is widely cited as "the greatest blues singer of all time" or even the most important musician of the 20th century, but many listeners are disappointed by their first encounter with his work. This reaction may be because of their unfamiliarity with the raw emotion and sparse form of the Delta style or because of the thin sound of the recordings when compared to modern music production standards. Johnson's guitar work was adroit and his voice was high-pitched.

The claims made for Johnson's originality and even his influence are often greatly exaggerated. He certainly did not invent the blues, which had existed on record for over fifteen years before he recorded. His primary influence was the inimitable Son House who, more than anyone else (except his friend Charley Patton), can claim to have heavily influenced what is now considered the mainstream of the Delta blues, with his rough voice and searing slide guitar riffs played on a steel-bodied National guitar.

But Johnson added to this the keening whimsy of then-obscure Skip James and the jazzy inventiveness of Lonnie Johnson. Indeed, a couple of his songs are nothing other than imitations of his famous namesake. Johnson had also listened to Leroy Carr, who was probably the most popular male blues singer of the time, and based several songs on the records of the urban blues recording stars Kokomo Arnold (source for both "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom") and Peetie Wheatstraw.

What Johnson did with these and other diverse influences was create a new sound that was at once immediate and artful. His use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago". His penchant for strange snatches of melodic invention on the upper strings, mingling with a quite different vocal line, appears on "Walking Blues". Johnson played with the young Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II, and allegedly trained his own stepson, Robert "Junior" Lockwood, as well.

There is a direct line of influence from Johnson to rock music. Blues musician and historian Elijah Wald feels that Johnson's major influence is on rock itself—particularly on white rock. He has made the controversial appraisal that As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note. Assessments such as Eric Clapton's of Johnson as "the most important blues musician who ever lived," Wald demonstrates convincingly, came with the best of intentions to expand Johnson's reputation past its enormous impact on rock. The truth was that Johnson, although well traveled and always admired in his performances, was little heard by the standards of his time and place, and his records even less so. ("Terraplane Blues," sometimes described as Johnson's only hit record, outsold his others but was still a very minor success at best.) If one had asked black blues fans about Robert Johnson in the first twenty years after his death, writes Wald, "the response in the vast majority of cases would have been a puzzled 'Robert who?'"

Years after his death, however, Johnson's recordings saw a wide release and a fan club grew around them, including rock stars such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his band mate Brian Jones, he replied, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was all Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton described Johnson's music as "the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". The song "Crossroads" by British blues rock/psychedelic band Cream is a cover version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", about the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, although Johnson's original lyrics ("Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride") suggest he was merely hitchhiking rather than signing away his soul to Lucifer in exchange for being a great blues musician.

An important aspect of Johnson's singing, and indeed of all Delta Blues singing styles, and also of Chicago blues guitar playing, is the use of microtonality -- his subtle inflections of pitch are part of the reason why his singing conveys such powerful emotion.

Johnson's recordings have remained continuously available since John Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling the rest of what could be found of Johnson's recordings, was issued in 1970. An omnibus two-CD set (The Complete Recordings) was released in 1990.

John P. Hammond (the son of the aforementioned John Hammond) produced a documentary in the early 1990s about Johnson's life in the Delta area.

In the summer of 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Johnson at number five in their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time [1]

The entire collection is available on The Complete Recordings (1990, 2004)
Artist information courtesy of their Wikipedia entry, which is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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