Robert Johnson Biography

Robert Johnson, an American blues composer, guitarist, and singer, was a true pioneer in the world of music. His haunting falsetto voice and mesmerizing slide guitar playing captivated audiences and left a lasting impact on both his contemporaries and future generations of blues and rock musicians. Despite facing initial skepticism from Delta blues masters, Johnson’s talent and musical ability were undeniable when he returned to his hometown after a year away. Legend has it that he made a fateful deal with the devil at a local crossroads, trading his soul for unparalleled skill as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. From Mississippi to New York, Johnson traveled far and wide, performing at various venues and leaving his mark on the blues scene. His recordings in the late 1930s showcased his incredible talent, with songs like ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ and ‘Terraplane Blues’ standing as some of his most powerful and compelling works. Although his body of work may be limited, Johnson’s influence on other legendary musicians such as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones cannot be overstated.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Robert Leroy Johnson
  • Died At Age: 27
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Caletta Craft (m. 1931–1938), Virginia Travis (m. 1929–1930)
    • Father: Noah Johnson
    • Mother: Julia Major Dodds
    • Children: Claud Johnson
  • Born Country: United States
  • Died Young
  • African American Men
  • Died on: August 16, 1938
  • Place of death: Greenwood, Mississippi, United States
  • Cause of Death: Murdered
  • U.S. State: Mississippi, African-American From Mississippi
  • More Facts
  • Education: Tunica’s Indian Creek School

Childhood & Early Life

Robert Leroy Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson, a laborer in a local sawmill. Robert’s mother was married to Charles Dodds, who had been forced by the locals to leave Hazlehurst. He was living in Memphis as Charles Spencer. Julia brought Robert to live with her husband Charles Spencer in Memphis in 1913. Three years later, he started attending school there, quite possibly ‘St. Peter’s elementary school.’ At Memphis, his older brother Leroy spent time in the musical establishments in the area (dance halls, bars, etc.) and played the guitar. He probably taught Robert a few elements of playing the guitar. According to the 1920 Census records, he was living with his mother and her new husband William “Dusty” Willis in Crittenden, Arkansas, where he attended ‘Indian Creek school in Commerce,’ Mississippi.

Career

By 1928, he had learnt one of his first guitar songs ‘I’m Gonna Sit Down and Tell My Mama’ from Harry Hard Rock Glenn. He could also play harmonica, Jews harp piano, pump organ, and guitar. In 1930, Son House, a blues singer and guitarist, moved to Robinsonville. House remembered Johnson as a ‘little boy’ who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. In 1931, he left the Delta to find his biological father Noah. He arrived in Martinsville, close to his birthplace Hazlehurst, and met Ike Zimmerman who took him home and taught him to play the guitar. When Johnson returned to Robinsonville, he seemed to have acquired a miraculous technique in playing the guitar. In a later interview, Son House attributed Johnson’s new technique and progress to the Devil pact. Between 1932 and 1938, he moved frequently between large cities like Memphis, Tennessee, Helena, and Arkansas and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1935, he met Johnny Shines whom he inspired to return to music. They travelled south and headed as far north as Ontario where they appeared on a local radio program. When he made up his mind to record in 1936, he approached H. C. Speir, a white record store owner in Jackson. H.C. Speir sent him to Ernie Oertle, an ARC scout. Oertle and Johnson went to San Antonio. In his first recording session in 1936 at a makeshift studio in ‘Gunter Hotel,’ San Antonio, Texas, Johnson recorded songs, such as ‘Come On In My Kitchen,’ ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues,’ and ‘Terraplane Blues.’ He returned to recording in 1937 in Dallas and recorded classics, including ‘Hellhound On My Trail,’ ‘Little Queen of Spades,’ ‘Malted Milk,’ ‘Drunken Hearted Man,’ ‘Me and the Devil Blues,’ and ‘Love in Vain.’

Major Works

‘Terraplane Blues,’ recorded in 1936, was Johnson’s first single. In the moderate regional hit, which sold 5,000 copies, he used the car model ‘Terraplane’ as a metaphor for sex with clear sexual innuendos. ‘Hellhound on My Trail,’ a song recorded by him in 1937 in Dallas, is considered to be his greatest. It was inducted into the ‘Blues Foundation Hall of Fame’ under the ‘Classic of Blues Recording’ category.

Awards & Achievements

In the 1990s, ‘The Complete Recordings,’ released by Sony/ Columbia, won a ‘Grammy’ under the ‘Best Historical Album’ category, while his song ‘Cross Road Blues’ was inducted into the ‘Grammy Hall of Fame.’ ‘The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ included four of his songs in its list of ‘500 songs that shaped rock and roll.’ These songs were ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ ‘Cross Road Blues,’ ‘Hellhound on My Trail,’ and ‘Love in Vain.’ ‘The Complete Recordings’ won the 1991 ‘Blues Foundation Award’ under the ‘Vintage or Reissue Album’ category. It is a compilation album, released by ‘Columbia Records.’ It was recorded during the Dallas and San Antonio sessions. He has been inducted into the ‘Blues Hall Of Fame,’ ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ and the ‘Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.’ In 2006, he was posthumously honored with the ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.’

Personal Life & Legacy

Johnson married Virginia Travis in 1929. She died during childbirth. Later, he married Caletta Craft. After she died during childbirth, he had relationships with numerous women. There is little evidence to believe that he had any family. However, the blues singer Robert Junior Lockwood was said to be the son of one of his girlfriends, as was Claude Johnson. He died on August 16, 1938 after drinking poisoned whisky, allegedly given to him by the friends of a man on whose wife he showed too much interest. The exact location of his grave is officially unknown.

Trivia

The character that Chris Thomas King played in the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ which was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is loosely based on this legendary Blues singer. His poorly-documented life has given rise to many legends, including the story that he sold his soul to the devil in order to learn to play the blues.

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