Black and white promo photo of Robert Johnson
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Robert Johnson

1986
Category:
Early Influences

His playing was to die for—or at the very least, sell your soul to Satan for.

Legend has it that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and gave him his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. Steeped in mystery, killed mysteriously, his legend eclipsed only by his skill, Robert Johnson may be the first ever rock star.

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Robert Johnson stands at the crossroads of American music, due in no small part to a popular folk legend that he once stood at Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing prowess.

He became the first modern bluesman, evolving the country blues of the Mississippi Delta. Johnson was a songwriter of searing depth and a guitar player with a commanding ability that inspired no less an admirer than Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones to exclaim, “When I first heard [him], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.”

Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911, Johnson was ill-suited for sharecropping and gravitated instead toward the itinerant life of the musician. He picked up the guitar in his teens and numbered among his tutors such esteemed blues figures as Charley Patton and Son House. During the Depression years of the early Thirties, Johnson lit out with his guitar and earned his keep as an entertainer—not only as a master of the blues but of the popular tunes and styles of the day. His travels took him throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, where he performed at juke joints, country suppers and levee camps. He also saw the big cities, traveling with fellow bluesman Johnny Shines to perform in St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere. The entirety of his recorded output was cut in three days worth of sessions in November 1936 and two days in June 1937. His life came to a premature end when he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he began seeing during a stint at the Three Forks juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi. The poisoning occurred on the night of August 13, 1938, and Johnson died three nights later at the home of a friend.

Though he recorded only twenty-nine songs in his brief career—twenty-four of which appeared on 78 rpm singles released on the Vocalion label, including his first and most popular, “Terraplane Blues”—Johnson nonetheless altered the course of American music. In the words of biographer Stephen C. LaVere, “Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last five decades.” Such classics as “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock and roll were built.

In an eloquent testimonial included in the liner notes to the box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Columbia Records, 1990), disciple Eric Clapton said, “Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived...I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.

Inductee: Robert Johnson (guitar, vocals; born May 8, 1911, died August 13, 1938)

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