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Music

The only solid fact about Robert Johnson is his music — everything else is up for grabs

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Robert Johnson in the early ’30s, in one of the only two verified photographs of him.



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Robert Johnson might the be the most effective musician in history. He died at 27 and only had 29 known recordings (16 of them produced in San Antonio); his music wasn’t widely played during his lifetime, and few facts are known about his life.

Yet he’s widely regarded as the greatest bluesman of all time.

He was “the most important blues musician who ever lived,” according to Eric Clapton, who released not one, but two collections of songs by Johnson in 2004: the album Me and Mr. Johnson and the EP Sessions for Robert J. And Clapton’s not the only one bitten. Ask anyone from Clapton’s Cream to Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones who the most influential bluesman was, and you always go back to Johnson. And yet the mysterious artist behind “Cross Road Blues” transcends the genre. Johnson was one of those honored in the very first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1986, and is frequently referred to as “the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll.”

Out of all the great living bluesmen, however, B.B. King is the rare case of someone with a different view.

“A lot of people think Robert Johnson was the best,” King told me from the back of his touring bus in San Antonio in 2006. “I don’t argue with them, but I don’t agree. I think [Alfonzo] ‘Lonnie’ Johnson [1899-1970] was the best blues guitarist in history. That’s my opinion.”

But King himself didn’t think twice about recording his version of “Cross Road Blues” (one of the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio in 1936) for the 100 Years of Robert Johnson tribute released in March by the Big Head Blues Club, a star-studded project headed by Big Head Todd & The Monsters’ Todd Park Mohr.

To say Johnson — who would’ve turned 100 on May 8 — is a legend is not enough; in his case, even the so-called truths about the man seem to bend depending on whom you talk to. The fact that he was an itinerant musician who used a variety of aliases hasn’t made it any easier for his biographers. His untimely death at age 27 has been attributed to a stabbing, a gunshot, or poisoning. And his alleged deal with the devil in exchange for musical powers is a key part of that Faustian legend — supposedly, Johnson was an ordinary guitarist who became a master after meeting with the Devil at either a crossroads or a graveyard. Only God — or the Devil — know.

“People know about his deal with the devil, but they haven’t heard the story of his deal with [American Recording Company], the record label,” said Robert Brink, the director of Devil Deal Blues, a short film to be shot in San Antonio in 2012. “Robert Johnson was a musical genius, under-appreciated in his time, whose music changed the blues and helped invent rock. In that spirit, we’re telling the story the way Robert Johnson or maybe Shakespeare would, creating drama and feeling, not documentary. We feel San Antonio’s importance in the world of music is so huge, we have to shoot [in SA] rather than in our school studio in New York.”

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