Robert Johnson was an American blues singer-songwriter from Hazlehurst, Mississippi. And probably the most iconic figure of the Delta blues scene. His song “Sweet Home Chicago” is considered as a blues classic and was notably covered by John Belushi and Dan Ayckroyd in the critically-acclaimed movie The Blues Brothers.
Born on May 8 1911, Robert Johnson first played the Jew’s harp and harmonica. He later learned the guitar as he moved to Robinsonville, alongside blues masters Son House and Billie Brown. Unfortunately, Robert Johnson had no any talent for the guitar, as Son House later claimed:
‘And such a racket you never heard! It’d make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it!’ I’d come back in, and I’d scold him about it, ‘Don’t do that, Robert. You drive the people nuts. You can’t play nothing. Why don’t you play that harmonica for ’em.’ But he didn’t want to blow that. Still, he didn’t care how I’d get after him about it. He’d do it anyway.’
Johnson left Robinsonville and went back to his home town, Hazlehurst. There, Robert Johnson met his future mentor, bluesman Ike Zimmerman. The two musicians performed in junk joints where Robert Johnson improved his guitar playing and built himself a good reputation as a musician.
In 1933, Robert Johnson came back to Robinsonville and met Son House again. Robert Johnson had made significant progress on his guitar playing, which profoundly impressed Son House and fueled the famous Crossroads legend. Desiring to become a great blues musician, Robert Johnson took his guitar and went to a crossroad late at night. There, Johson met the Devil. The Devil tuned Robert’s guitar, played a few songs and returned it to the musician, giving him the master of the instrument in exchange for his soul.
From then on, Robert Johnson became a professional musician and travelled all around Mississippi and Arkansas (sometimes much farther) alongside blues musicians such as Johnny Shines and Henry Townsend. His ambition never stopped increasing: Robert Johnson’s new desire was to record an album, as Charley Patton and Willy Brown did before him. In 1936, Johnson met Ernie Oertie from American Record Corporation. The latter decided to record a session with Robert in San Antonio.
On November 23, 1936, Robert Johnson recorded his songs ‘Come In The Kitchen’, ‘Kind Hearted Woman’, ‘Cross Road Blues’, ‘Terraplane Blues’ and ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, and finally at the Vitagraph’s studio in Dallas in 1937.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s great career came to an end far too quickly. Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27. Johnson has recorded only 29 songs which became blues classics: ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Love In Vain’, ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’, ‘Walkin’ Blues’, ‘Come In My Kitchen’…
His music legacy has crossed many decades and influenced many other bands and musicians such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher and many others.