Only a handful of events in the short life of Robert Johnson are documented and accounts often contradict each other. Out of this vague and misty past grew one of the spookiest rock’n’roll legends.
Son House, an admired Mississippi blues performer in the early 1930s, remembered a teen-aged Robert Johnson as a decent harmonica player but a poor guitar player. Robert would ask Son House if he could play his guitar for the crowd while House took a break. House told Johnson that the young man’s skills were not good enough for the stage.
It was a year and a half later Son House saw Robert Johnson, again, in a crowded juke joint. He confidently asked House if he could play during the break. House finally gave in and let the young man play. Johnson lit up the room with his playing. House had never seen such a complete transformation of talent in such a short time.
There are two stories about how Johnson gained his astounding chops so quickly. It was during that missing year and a half that Robert Johnson befriended a blues performer named Ike Zimmerman. It was rumored that the talented Zimmerman practiced his guitar at night in local cemeteries. Was he receiving some sort of supernatural guidance? Did Zimmerman share this magic with Robert Johnson?
The other story about Johnson’s transformation is that he emulated a blues man named Tommy Johnson. This musician was depicted in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” and yes, he was a real person. If you have seen the movie, you know that Tommy went to the crossroads at midnight to make a deal with the devil. He traded his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar.
However Johnson found his skills, he took them on the road, playing juke joints and parties throughout the Mississippi Delta and as far as Chicago, New York and Canada. He traveled to San Antonio, Texas, and later to Dallas for his only two recording sessions resulting in 29 recorded songs.
He was playing at a juke joint in Three Forks, Miss., in August 1938. The legend goes that he was flirting with an attractive woman in between sets. The woman was the wife of the bar owner and he was a jealous man. The bar owner sent a complimentary bottle of whiskey to the performer. After the gig Robert fell very ill. Three days later, August 16, 1938, Robert Johnson was dead at the young age of 27.
John Hammond, the famous record producer and talent scout, had tried to locate and sign Johnson to a recording contract, but he was too late. Years later, in 1961, Hammond put together an album of Robert Johnson’s music called “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” At the time of the release, Hammond gave a copy of the album to an artist he had recently signed. That artist was Bob Dylan. The album was not a big seller, but two of the buyers were English boys named Brian Jones and Eric Clapton. The album would profoundly shape all of their careers.