b. Robert Leroy Johnson, 8th May 1911, Hazlehurst, Mississippi, U.S.A.
d. 16th August 1938, Greenwood, Mississippi, U.S.A.
Robert Johnson is many historians go-to artist, when referencing the Blues guitar and the genre itself.
He only lived for 27 years, and his legacy was to hugely influence many Blues, R&B and Rock artists throughout the following century.
Robert was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911.
The actual date of historical reference is the 8th of May, however, this is somewhat uncertain.
His parents were Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson.
Roberts mother was previously married to a landowner called Charles Dodds, with whom she had several children.
Following an issue with some white landowners, Julia and the family relocated to Memphis.
She remarried to a much younger man, and took up residence in Mississippi with her husband and Robert.
Robert went to school in 1924, and took up playing the harmonica.
When he left school Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, ‘Johnson’.
In 1929, he married Virginia Travis, who sadly passed away during childbirth.
Robert saw his wife’s demise as a form of punishment for performing secular material.
The term ‘Selling your soul to the Devil’ he applied to himself.
Robert began performing The Blues, initially performing on the harmonica, whilst he honed his guitar playing skills.
He relocated from his, then home in Robinsonville, to a new home in Martinsville, Mississippi.
He performed locally, and, by the time he had performed back in Robinsonville, his guitar playing had moved onto another level.
In Martinsville, he became a father to Vergie Mae Smith, marrying Caletta Craft in 1931.
History repeated itself when Caletta died during childbirth.
Robert left home, and became something of a nomadic musician.
Between 1932 and 1938 (the year of his passing), Robert travelled and performed in many places, including, Memphis, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
Another Blues musician, Johnny Shines, journeyed with him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana.
The musician Henry ‘Mule’ Townsend performed with him in St. Louis, with Robert staying with anyone who would offer him a bed for the night.
He never re-married, although he established friendships with several women during his musical journey.
robert johnson, calletta craft, estella coleman and robert lockwood jnr. - circa 1935
One woman, Estella Coleman, was the mother of the Blues musician Robert Lockwood, Jr.
He often befriended women in order to have a place to stay whenever he was in town.
Robert was known to have used aliases to protect his anonymity.
He performed on street corners in many of the places he visited, sometimes performing non-Blues based popular material.
His audiences warmed to him, and he was often welcomed back to places with whom he had struck up a rapport with.
During 1936, Robert tracked down the talent scout, Henry Columbus Speir.
'i believe i'll dust my broom' b/w 'dead shrimp blues' / 'terraplane blues' b/w 'kind hearted woman blues' / 'malted milk' b/w 'milkcows calf blues' / 'hell hound on my trail' b/w 'from four until late' (all 1937)
Henry put Robert in touch with Ernie Oertle (and ARC Records salesman).
Ernie introduced Robert to (London born, Record Producer) Don Law (Donald Firth Law), where he recorded his first sessions in Texas.
Robert, initially, recorded 16 songs, where he performed his sessions facing the corner of the studio.
'come on in my kitchen' b/w 'they're red hot' / 'cross road blues' b/w 'ramblin' on my mind' / 'sweet home chicago' b/w 'walking' blues' / '32-20 blues' b/w 'last fair deal gone down' (all 1937)
These sessions included ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’, ‘I Believe I'll Dust My Broom’, ‘Terraplane Blues’, ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ and ‘Cross Road Blues’.
‘Terraplane Blues’ regionally sold 5,000 copies.
In 1937, Robert returned to Texas, for further sessions with Don Law.
This time he recorded eleven sides, which were released the following year.
'stones in my passway' b/w 'i'm a steady rollin' man' -1937 / 'me and the devil blues' b/w 'little queen of spades' - 1938 / 'stop breakin' down blues' b/w 'honeymoon blues' - 1938 / 'preachin' blues (up jumped the devil)' b/w 'love in vain blues' - 1939
In total, Robert recorded around half of the 29 songs which comprise his overall discography in Dallas.
Sadly, Robert died on the 16th of August 1938, at the age of 27.
He died in Greenwood, Mississippi from undetermined causes.
Robert is believed to be buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Morgan City, Mississippi, (near Greenwood).
Prior to his passing, Robert had been performing in the outskirts of Greenwood.
Accounts from the time state that Robert had been in dispute with a partner of one of his female acquaintances.
Reports of poisoned bottles of whiskey were said to have been the cause, with Robert becoming ill very quickly, being taken to his room, where he became weak and died over a period of three days.
Reports stated that Robert was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the local county.
'king of the delta blues' - 1961
Robert’s posthumous career was fairly uneventful until, in 1961, a reissue of his recordings, entitled ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’, brought the music of Robert Johnson, to a wider audience.
In the years that followed, Robert was crowned the ‘Master Of The Blues’ and 'King Of The Delta Blues'.
His influences on today’s Rock and Roll performers is immense.
Eric Clapton hails Robert as ‘the most important blues singer that ever lived’.
Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards stated ‘You want to know how good the Blues can get? Well, this is it. Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself’.
Bob Dylan said ‘When Johnson started singing, I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid’.
Rolling Stone magazine named Robert as one of the ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’.