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Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings
Original Release Date: 1990

Review (by Tommy Chung)
This is where it all began - The ultimate, quintessential recording of not only Country Blues but of the later electric Urban, Uptown, Chicago, Memphis Blues and the rest. Robert Johnson, the mystical figure, the legend, who sold his soul to the devil at the "Crossroads" to learn playing the Blues, died of poisoning by a jealous husband. The ultimate guitarist who, according to his traveling companion and fellow Blues guitarist /singer Johnny Shines, could play instantly anything he heard on the radio. Before the digital age, the LP cover of his recordings released under Columbia showed a painting of a man sitting on a chair playing his guitar seen from an elevated angle. You could not see his face. The LP was called "King Of The Delta Blues." I had some many dreams and nightmares of what the man looked like in real life and was led to believe no picture of him ever existed. Years later, when I saw his picture, I did not know how to react. I couldn't believe it and I photocopied it and kept it in my wallet so I could look at it now and again. There are in fact two pictures of Robert Johnson known to exist. One was taken at probably a drug store with Robert Johnson looking mean and uninterested with a cigarette in his and mouth and holding a guitar in his octopus-like fingers. The other is the standard record company snap short of Blues artists at the time. Robert was wearing a pin-strip suit, a tie, a Stetson hat, sitting on a chair with a guitar with a big grin on his face trying to look friendly and welcoming. His black leather shoes were obviously new, most probably borrowed for the photo session. Robert Johnson looked completely out of his element in this photo. To this day, I still carry his pictures in my wallet.

In Country Blues, there were many giants, phenomenal musicians each with their own idiosyncratic styles. To name a few, Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Leroy Carr, Sleepy John Estes and the list goes on. But you have to hand it to Robert Johnson if there ever were a King of the Delta Blues. The thing about Robert Johnson's music is that there is almost nothing original in his singing and playing. But what he did, and in an almost magical way, was to combine the best qualities of all those musicians who preceded him and make their styles his own. He literally borrowed, or some say stole, the best licks, harmonies, vocal lines from his peers and musicians he looked up to. He copied Sleep John Estes' style and put it into "Hellhound On My Trail." He stole the bottleneck lick from Son House and transformed it into "Walking Blues" and "Crossroads Blues." He copied the melody lines from Leroy Carr's "In The Evening Blues" and played and sang his "From Four Until Late." There were countless other musicians whom Johnson ripped off, licks and songs which he stole turned them into his own.

But take nothing away from the man, the man had class and style and his technique was devilish. He wrote beautiful, poetry-like lyrics, lyrics. His laid-back singing sounds so eerie it makes your hair stand and gives you goosebumps. His guitar playing is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult guitar work ever to emerge from the Blues. When you hear him sing and play, you could almost feel you were hearing someone singing from the grave. Listen to his "Come On Into My Kitchen," "Hellhound On My Tail", you could almost feel the devil sitting right beside you, that death is round the next corner. Before Robert Johnson, Country Blues music had no standard form, the number of stanzas in a verse depends on the whim of the singer and how he felt: one verse could be 15 bars long, another 10 bars long. What Robert Johnson did was he more or less standardized the Blues, all his songs were roughly 12 bars or 8 bar songs. His music stands alone in all the recorded Country Blues music, he was one of a kind, his music is unsurpassed. Without Robert Johnson, I doubt very much the Blues would have developed the way it did. When you listen to Robert Johnson for the first time, you need to read the lyrics to the songs (provided in the booklet of the Columbia two CD pack). Because only when you do that you can fully appreciate the poetry, the vision and the mind of the man. Robert Johnson died in 1938 when he was 26 years old. Had he lived to reach the age of the electric guitar, I dare not image what he would do with an electric guitar.

Don't miss the book by Peter Guralnick "Searching For Robert Johnson" published by Belisk Dutton. This book is much more interesting than any paperback thriller. If you want some visual, I highly recommend the DVD "The Search For Robert Johnson" released by Columbia Music Video CVD 49113. This movie was narrated by John Hammond Jr.

Extended Listening

-Robert Lucas- Usin' Man Blues
-
Peter Green- The Robert Johnson Songbook

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