Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is probably the most famous Delta blues singer and guitarist in history. He is also generally regarded (somewhat problematically) as the most influential one.
Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. The commonly accepted birthdate is almost certainly in error. Records from during his lifetime (school and marriage records) or immediately thereafter (a death certificate) suggest various dates including 1909 and 1912, although none support the 1911 date.
Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs on a total of 42 tracks in two recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas in November 1936 and Dallas, Texas in June 1937. Thirteen of the songs were recorded twice. Notable among these tracks were "Come on in My Kitchen", "Love in Vain", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Cross Road Blues", "Terraplane Blues", and "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)", all frequently remade and imitated by other artists.
Popular legend says that Johnson died after drinking whiskey poisoned with strychnine, supposedly given to him by the jealous husband of a lover. Actually, he recovered from the poisoning initially, only to contract pneumonia and die three days later on the 16th August 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. His death certificate simply states "No doctor" under cause of death.
A recurring legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. The legend was told mainly by Son House, but finds no corroboration in any of Johnson's work, despite titles like "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail". The older Tommy Johnson, by contrast, actually did claim to have sold his soul to the Devil.
Johnson is frequently cited as "the greatest blues singer of all time" or even the most important musician of the 20th century, but many listeners are disappointed by their first encounter with his work. This reaction may be because of their unfamiliarity with the raw emotion and sparse form of the Delta style or because of the thin sound of the recordings when compared to modern music production standards. Johnson's guitar work was adroit but his voice was high-pitched.
Exaggerated claims are sometimes made for Johnson's originality. He certainly did not invent the blues, which had existed on record for over fifteen years before he recorded. Johnson's importance lies in his recasting of earlier traditions into something new and better. His primary influence was the inimitable Son House, who more than anyone else (except his friend Charley Patton) can claim to have invented what is now considered the mainstream of the Delta blues, with his rough voice and searing slide guitar riffs played on a steel-bodied National guitar. But Johnson added to this the keening whimsy of Skip James and the jazzy inventiveness of Lonnie Johnson. Indeed, a couple of his songs are nothing other than imitations of his famous namesake. Johnson had also listened to Leroy Carr, who was probably the most popular male blues singer of the time, and based several songs on the records of the urban blues recording stars Kokomo Arnold (source for both "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom") and Peetie Wheatstraw.
What Johnson did with these and other diverse influences was create a new sound that was at once immediate and artful. His use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago". His penchant for strange snatches of melodic invention on the upper strings, mingling with a quite different vocal line, appears on "Walking Blues". Johnson played with the young Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II (who claimed to be present at the fateful night when Johnson was poisoned, and even warned him against taking an open bottle of whiskey!). He trained his stepson as well, Robert "Junior" Lockwood. He also acted as mentor to Elmore James, and inspired the young Muddy Waters to take up the blues. All of these musicians and others who created the Chicago style of electric blues in the 1950s were essentially playing the music of Robert Johnson, plugged in. There is thus a direct line of influence from the early blues to post-war blues to early rock and roll and later rock music. "All blues seem to revolve around Robert Johnson", according to modern bluesman Keb' Mo'.
Years after his death, Johnson's fan club grew to include rock stars such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he replied, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was all Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton described Johnson as "the most important blues musician who ever lived. ... His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". The song "Crossroads" by British blues rock/psychedelic band Cream is a cover version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", about the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads.
Johnson's recordings have remained continuously available since John Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling all that could be found of Johnson's surviving efforts, was issued later in the decade. An omnibus CD set was released in the early 1990s.