Getty | WireImage | Getty May 29, 2012 marked the 15th anniversary of Jeff…
- Posted on May 27th 2011 5:00PM by James Sullivan
For one thing, the "King of the Delta Blues" would have enjoyed quite a coronation in the 1960s and '70s, when every blues-based rock guitarist worth a pack of strings professed a profound appreciation for him. When Keith Richards first listened to Johnson, who only recorded a few dozen songs in his short life, he was convinced he wasn't listened to a solo guitarist. "Who's the other guy?" asked the Rolling Stone.
Eric Clapton was famously thunderstruck, too. "Up until the time I was 25," he once said, "if you didn't know who Robert Johnson was, I wouldn't talk to you."
John Hammond, the renowned talent scout who would eventually give Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen their starts, sent for Johnson in late 1938. He wanted the elusive, all-but-unknown bluesman to take part in the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, a landmark event in which Hammond introduced white audiences to the African-American architects of American popular music, among them Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Big Bill Broonzy.
By then, however, Johnson was dead of a reported poisoning, the alleged victim of a jealous boyfriend. "Can you imagine," Hammond once wondered, "how famous Robert Johnson would be today had he been able to make it?"
As it is, Johnson's slender discography -- 'Sweet Home Chicago,' 'I Believe I'll Dust My Broom,' 'Cross Road Blues,' 'Love in Vain' -- gave an entire vocabulary to generations of rock musicians who were not nearly born by the time of his premature death. The mythology certainly helped: bluesmen who performed with Johnson claimed that he taught himself to play while practicing in a graveyard at midnight. Others said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical immortality, a pact they believe led to the death during childbirth of his 16-year-old bride and his eventual murder.
With all the mysteries he left behind, his legend has only grown. Three different Mississippi cemeteries have laid claim to Johnson's remains, each hosting a gravestone marking a presumed final resting place for his body. Anything, apparently, is possible for the guitar hero, about whom Richards once marveled, "This guy must have three brains!"