Legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson would help write a significant chapter in the history of American music when he traveled to Texas in the late 1930s to record his music, leaving behind a mere twenty-nine songs before his death.
Johnson was born Robert Dodds in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, about 1911. Many sources have given his birthdate as May 8, 1911, but inconsistent information in official documents such as census records, school records, and his first marriage license, have called a precise date into question. He was the son of Mrs. Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson and was the product of an extramarital affair. As a teenager he took the name of Johnson. Robert Johnson began playing harmonica at an early age and associated with older bluesmen such as Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and later Son House. He eventually abandoned the harmonica altogether in favor of the guitar, the rudiments of which he had learned from his older brother. In 1929 he married Virginia Travis. She and their infant died in childbirth in 1930. He married Calletta Craft in 1931 but apparently deserted her. After disappearing for several months, Johnson reemerged in Robinsonville, Mississippi, with a newfound virtuosity on the guitar, often claiming he learned to play guitar from the Devil himself.
A popular Mississippi bluesman, Robert Johnson made his living as an itinerant musician, playing juke joints throughout the South. It was during this time that he drew the attention of Ernie Oertle, a salesman and part-time talent scout for the American Record Corporation's Vocalion label. Oertle was traveling the South in search of new talent when he approached Johnson and invited him to record for his label.
Robert Johnson's first recording session took place on November 23, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas. Vocalion producer Don Law oversaw the recording sessions which took place downtown at the Gunter Hotel at 205 East Houston Street. Law had booked two adjoining rooms in the hotel, with recording equipment in one room and the musician(s) in the other. The label had been recording such artists as W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys, Al Dexter, and Hermanas Barraza at the hotel since November 10, and cutting finished masters at the all-day recording sessions.
Johnson recorded eight sides during his first session, including "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," and his biggest hit "Terraplane Blues," a popular song on jukeboxes throughout the South. Despite having been Johnson's first recording session, he demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the process. His arrangements were tight; his vocals clear, fitting well into the 78 rpm format (approximately 2 ½ minutes) with but few retakes necessary. Later that same night after the all-day sessions were concluded, Law received a phone call. It seemed that Johnson had managed to get himself into trouble and wound up in the Bexar County jail. Johnson, fresh from his stint in jail, returned to the Gunter on November 26 when he managed to record only one song, "32:20 Blues." He returned the following day and recorded another seven sides, including the legendary "Cross Road Blues" (covered by Eric Clapton and Cream).
For several years local historians erroneously reported the recordings took place at the Bluebonnet Hotel (which was demolished in the mid-1980s). However local blues fans and others took steps to correct this mistake. Thanks to the San Antonio Blues Society and Robert Johnson Blues Society, a marker commemorating the Gunter Hotel as the site of Robert Johnson's historic recording sessions was erected on November 23, 2001.
Following the success of "Terraplane Blues," Ernie Oertle once again invited Johnson to Texas for another set of recording sessions, this time in Dallas. The Dallas recording sessions took place on June 19 and 20, 1937. Producer Don Law once again oversaw the recordings in a makeshift studio located in the Brunswick Records Building at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas. For several years the exact location of the recording sessions was unknown. They were originally reported to have taken place in an abandoned warehouse, presumably in the Deep Ellum neighborhood. This may have been a natural assumption as Deep Ellum has long been associated with the blues in Dallas and was home to bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. Finally after several years of debate, Vocalion employees present at the time of the recordings settled the debate by naming the Park Avenue address as the correct location of the sessions.
Johnson's first day of recording in Dallas produced three sides, including "Stones In My Passway." He returned the following day and recorded an additional ten sides; among them were "Hellhound On My Trail," "Me and the Devil Blues," and "Traveling Riverside Blues" (covered by Led Zeppelin). As with the San Antonio sessions, Johnson was paid cash for each song and would receive no royalties for his work.
Following his stay in Dallas, Robert Johnson returned to Mississippi and resume his career as a traveling musician. He died in Greenwood, Mississippi, on August 16, 1938, under mysterious circumstances. Many scholars believe he was poisoned.
Robert Johnson was named a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980, and in 1986 he was one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His recordings had been released by Columbia in two volumes titled King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961 and 1965). In 1990 Columbia released a box set titled The Complete Recordings which received a Grammy for Best Historical Recording in 1991. Johnson appeared on a commemorative United States postage stamp in 1994. By 1998 director Peter Meyer had released a documentary film about Johnson—Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson. In 1998 Robert Johnson's son, Claud Johnson, won a court battle to be recognized as the legal heir to the Johnson estate. Claud Johnson had been born out of wedlock to seventeen-year-old Virgie Mae Smith. He accepted the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame Award on behalf of his father in 2000.
The San Antonio Blues Society hosted its inaugural Robert Johnson S. A. Sessions festival in November 2001 in honor of the 1936 recording sessions and held concerts at the Gunter Hotel. In the early twenty-first century Robert Johnson's influence on contemporary music continued. Eric Clapton released his CD Me and Mr. Johnson, his interpretation of fourteen of Johnson's songs, in 2004. Johnson was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2011 many blues lovers and music historians celebrated the centennial of Johnson’s birth, and plans were underway to restore the building at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas, the site of the bluesman’s historic recording sessions in that city. Folk Alliance International announced that Johnson would be honored with the 2012 Folk Alliance Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Award. The 508 Amphitheater, part of the Park Avenue restoration project, was dedicated on October 24, 2014.
Johnson’s only living child, Claud, died on June 30, 2015. In August 2015 Johnson’s grandson, Steven Johnson, and his band performed some of his grandfather’s songs at the Robert Johnson Blues Revue at Encore Park at the 508 Amphitheater in Dallas.