The month of February is Black History month, and to celebrate it here at WUMB we are highlighting artists who have shaped the history of music over time. Today we highlight master of the Blues, Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson , was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8th, 1911 though as a musician he moved everywhere from the Mississippi Delta, to Memphis, Arkansas. Along with fellow blues musicians such as Henry Townsend and Johnny Shines he also brought his music to Indiana, Chicago, Kentucky, Texas, Canada and New York.
Johnson’s first ever recording session was with famed producer, Don Law—who would be the only person to produce Johnson’s recordings, in Room 414 of The Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on November 23rd, 1936. He played sixteen songs over the course of the three-day session, including “Terraplane Blues”, “Come On In My Kitchen” and others, along with alternate versions for most of the tracks. In 1937 Johnson and Law got together for a second session, this time in the Dallas Warner Brothers building. These proved to be his only recording sessions as he passed away on August 16, 1938. He was twenty-seven.
Now known as the Master of The Blues, Johnson was known in his lifetime for his ability to play various styles and allegedly could learn songs by ear. He was also known for his unique voice which Eric Clapton describes as, “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”. His guitar has often been described as the “second voice” in his songs and on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 2010 “500 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” Johnson ranked at number five.
Though Robert Johnson was not commercially popular in his lifetime, in 1961 Columbia Records released a compilation of his records entitled King of The Delta Blues Singers which allowed his music to be heard by larger audiences and his influence has spread to genres beyond The Blues. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has included four of his songs—“Love In Vain”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Hellhound On My Trail”, and “Cross Road Blues”, on their list of 500 songs that have influence Rock and Roll. He has also won two posthumous Grammy Awards, the first in 1990 for “Best Historical Album” garnered by The Complete Recordings, a collection of everything he ever recorded, and the second was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Today his legacy lives on and his music has been immortalized in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. More information can be found at RobertJohnsonBluesFoundation.org.