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Published on Jul 19, 2008
Recorded: Place ?, November 27, 1936 Robert Johnson (g) (vcl)
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 -- August 16, 1938) is among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936--1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson's shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend.
Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll", his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, The Band, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Robert Palmer, Jack White and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived". He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi probably on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to Charles Dodds, a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker to whom she had borne 10 children. Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis, and Robert was remembered by some informants as "Little Robert Dusty". However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jew's harp.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth.
Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner Willie Brown already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a boy who had followed him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. He then left the Robbinsonville area, but later reappeared after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique. His boast is entirely credible. Johnson later recorded versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in House's vocal and guitar style. However, Son's chronology is questioned by Guralnick. When House moved to Robbinsville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was living near Hazelhurst, where he married for the second time. From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.