b. Robert Leroy Johnson, 8 May 1911 (this often varies), Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA, d. 16 August 1938, Greenwood, Mississippi, USA.
For a subject upon which it is dangerous to generalise, it hardly strains credulity to suggest that Johnson was the fulcrum upon which post-war Chicago blues turned. The techniques which he had distilled from others' examples, including Charley Patton, Son House and the unrecorded Ike Zinnerman, in turn became the template for influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Elmore James and those that followed them. Endowed by some writers with more originality than was in fact the case, it was as an interpreter that Johnson excelled, raising a simple music form to the level of performance art at a time when others were content to iterate the conventions. He was one of the first of his generation to make creative use of others' recorded efforts, adapting and augmenting their ideas to such extent as to impart originality to the compositions they inspired. Tempering hindsight with perspective, it should be noted that only his first record, "Terraplane Blues," sold in any quantity; even close friends and family remained unaware of his recorded work until decades later, when researchers such as Gayle Dean Wardlow and Mack McCormick contacted them. In all, Johnson recorded 29 compositions at five sessions held between 23 November 1936 and 20 June 1937; a further ‘bawdy’ song recorded at the engineers' request is as yet unlocated. It has never been established which, if any, of his recordings were specifically created for the studio and what proportion were regularly performed, although associate Johnny Shines attested to the effect that "Come On In My Kitchen" had upon audiences. Similarly, the image of shy, retiring genius has been fabricated out of his habit of turning away from the engineers and singing into the corners of the room, which Ry Cooder identifies as ‘corner loading’, a means of enhancing vocal power. That power and the precision of his guitar playing are evident from the first take of "Kind-hearted Women Blues," which like "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Sweet Home Chicago," is performed without bottle-neck embellishment. All eight titles from the first session in San Antonio, Texas, exhibit the attenuated rhythm patterns, adapted from a boogie pianist's left-hand ‘walking basses’, that became synonymous with post-war Chicago blues and Jimmy Reed in particular. Several alternate takes survive and reveal how refined Johnson's performances were, only "Come On In My Kitchen" being played at two contrasting tempos. Eight more titles were recorded over two days, including "Walkin' Blues," learned from Son House, and "Cross Road Blues," the song an echo of the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil to achieve his musical skill. "Preachin' Blues" and "If I Had Possessions Over Judgement Day" were both impassioned performances that show his ability was consummate. The balance of his repertoire was recorded over a weekend some seven months later in Dallas. These 11 songs run the gamut of emotions, self-pity, tenderness and frank sexual innuendo giving way to representations of demonic possession, paranoia and despair. Fanciful commentators have taken "Hellhound On My Trail" and "Me And The Devil" to be literal statements rather than the dramatic enactment of feeling expressed in the lyrics. Johnson's ability to project emotion, when combined with the considered way in which he lifted melodies and mannerisms from his contemporaries, gainsay a romantic view of his achievements. Nevertheless, the drama in his music surely reflected the drama in his lifestyle, that of an itinerant with a ready facility to impress his female audience. One such dalliance brought about his end a year after his last session, poisoned by a jealous husband while performing in a jook joint at Three Forks, outside Greenwood, Mississippi. At about that time, Columbia A&R man John Hammond was seeking out Johnson to represent country blues at a concert, entitled "From Spirituals To Swing," that took place at New York's Carnegie Hall on 23 December 1938. Big Bill Broonzy took Johnson's place. Robert Johnson possessed unique abilities, unparalleled in his contemporaries and those that followed him. The importance of his effect on subsequent musical developments cannot be diminished but neither should it be seen in isolation. His name was kept alive in the '80s by a comprehensive reissue project, while in the '90s he was included as part of the US stamp series celebrating the classic blues artists. Even in his absence he managed to provide controversy—when a cigarette was removed from the original painting, the decision was described by tobacco baron Philip Morris as ‘an insult to America's 50 million smokers’.
Further reading: Peter Guralnick, Searching For Robert Johnson.