Listen to the full radio special here!
May 8, 2011, marks the 100th birthday of Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, who, according to legend, sold his soul down at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in a midnight bargain that has haunted the music world for three-quarters of a century. The ‘deal’ brought forth Johnson’s incandescent guitar technique and a run of 10-inch 78 rpm singles for the Vocalion, Oriole, Conqueror and Perfect labels recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937.
Though he recorded only 29 songs in his brief career, Johnson nonetheless altered the course of American music by displaying a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of rock musicians including Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.
- Eric Clapton: “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.
- Keith Richards: “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.”
- Robert Plant: “Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”
- Martin Scorsese: “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
- 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 1990 SPIN Magazine rated him 1st in its 35 Guitar Gods listing—on the 52nd anniversary of his death.
- In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 5th on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time—70 years after he died.
- In 2010 Guitar.com ranked him 9th in its list of Gibson.com’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time—72 years after he died.
- Johnson can be considered a charter member of the “27 Club” – legendary musicians who died at 27 including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones.
Over the years since his death in 1939, Johnson’s influence has resounded in the music of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rock:
- Muddy Waters (“32-20 Blues”),
- Elmore James (“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”),
- Junior Parker and the Blues Brothers (“Sweet Home Chicago”),
- John Hammond Jr. (“Milk Cow’s Calf Blues”),
- The Rolling Stones (“Love In Vain,” “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues”),
- John Mayall featuring Eric Clapton (“Ramblin’ On My Mind”),
- Cream (“From Four Until Late”),
- Cream/Eric Clapton (“Cross Road Blues”),
- Johnny Winter (“When You Got a Good Friend”),
- Paul Butterfield and Bonnie Raitt (“Walkin’ Blues”),
- Fleetwood Mac and ZZ Top (“Hellhound On My Trail”),
- Led Zeppelin (“Traveling Riverside Blues”),
- Keb’ Mo’ (“Preachin’ Blues”),
- The Steve Miller Band, The Allman Brothers Band and Cassandra Wilson (“Come On In My Kitchen”),
- Red Hot Chili Peppers (“They’re Red Hot“),
- The White Stripes (“Stop Breaking Down Blues“),
- and countless others.
It is by far the most empowering body of work in American history to emerge from one solitary blues figure.
- The Robert Johnson: 100th Anniversary Radio Special airs Sunday, May 8 at Noon, 4 p.m., 8 p.m. and midnight and features comments by guitarists Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule), Corey Harris, Johnson’s grandson David Johnson, blues historians Peter Guralnick and Scott Barretta.
- They’re Red Hot (by the Red Hot Chili Peppers)*
- Last Fair Deal Gone Down (2:41)
- Sweet Home Chicago (3:01)
- Come On In My Kitchen (2:47)
- They’re Red Hot (2:07)
- Walkin’ Blues (2:31)
- Stones In My Passway (1:14)
- Kind Hearted Woman Blues (2:55)
- Crossroads (by Cream)*
- From Four Until Late (1:00)
- Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil) (1:39)
- Cross Road Blues (2:40)
- 32—20 Blues (1:43)
- Me and The Devil Blues (2:38)
- Hell Hound On My Trail (2:40)
- If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day (2:37)
- Stop Breaking Down (by The White Stripes)*
- I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man (1:00)
- Ramblin’ On My Mind (1:27)
- I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom (3:02)
- Love In Vain Blues (2:21)
- Traveling Riverside Blues (2:42)
- Terraplane Blues (2:59)
- Traveling Riverside Blues (by Led Zeppelin)*
All music comes from the newly remastered, April 2011 release, “Robert Johnson Centennial Edition” (Legacy Recordings) *except as noted.