Robert Johnson Biography

Robert Johnson was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician. This biography profiles his childhood, music career, achievements and timeline.

Robert Johnson
Quick Facts

Birthday: May 8, 1911

Nationality: American

Famous: Died Young Black Singers

Died At Age: 27

Sun Sign: Taurus

Also Known As: Robert Leroy Johnson

Born in: Hazlehurst, Mississippi

Famous as: Musician, Songwriter

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Caletta Craft (m. 1931–1938), Virginia Travis (m. 1929–1930)

father: Noah Johnson

mother: Julia Major Dodds

children: Claud Johnson

Died on: August 16, 1938

place of death: Greenwood, Mississippi

U.S. State: Mississippi

More Facts

education: Tunica's Indian Creek School

awards: 1990 - Grammy Award for Best Historical Album
2006 - Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

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Robert Johnson was an American blues composer, guitarist, and singer whose eerie falsetto voice and masterful, rhythmic slide guitar influenced both his contemporaries and many later blues and rock musicians. In Robinsonville, where he spent the bulk of his youth, he came in contact with Delta blues masters Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Son House, who were not particularly impressed by his talent. They were, however, astonished by his musical ability when he returned to his town after being away for a year. According to legends, during that period he made a deal with Satan at a crossroad, acquiring his prodigious talent as a guitarist, singer and songwriting in exchange for the stipulation that he would have only eight more years to live. He traveled throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee and as far north as Chicago and New York, playing at house parties, juke joints and on the street. In 1936–37, he made a series of recordings in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, and at a warehouse in Dallas. His repertoire included several blues songs but his original numbers, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’, and ‘Terraplane Blues’ are most compelling pieces. Despite the limited body of work, he had a major impact on several other brilliant musicians, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.

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Robert Johnson
Childhood & Early Life
  • Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson, a laborer in a local sawmill.
  • Robert’s mother was married to Charles Dodds, who had been forced by locals to leave Hazlehurst. He was living in Memphis as Charles Spencer.
  • Julia brought Robert to live with her husband Charles Spencer in Memphis in 1913. Three years later, he started attending school there, quite possibly St. Peter’s elementary school.
  • At Memphis, his older brother Leroy spent time in the musical establishments in the area (dance halls, bars, etc.) and played the guitar. He probably taught Robert a few elements of guitar playing.
  • 1920 Census records show him living with his mother and her new husband, William “Dusty” Willis in Crittenden, Arkansas, where he attended Indian Creek school in Commerce, Mississippi.
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Career
  • By 1928, he learnt one of his first guitar songs, ‘I’m Gonna Sit Down and Tell My Mama’, from Harry Hard Rock Glenn and could also play harmonica, Jews harp piano, pump organ, and guitar.
  • In 1930, Son House, a blues singer and guitarist, moved to Robinsonville. House remembered Johnson as a 'little boy' who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist.
  • In 1931, he left the Delta to find his biological father Noah. He arrived in Martinsville, close to his birthplace Hazlehurst and met Ike Zimmerman who took him home and taught him guitar.
  • When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique. In a later interview, Son House attributed Johnson's new technique and progress to the Devil pact.
  • Between 1932 and 1938, he moved frequently between large cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas.
  • In 1935, he met Johnny Shines whom he inspired to return to music. They travelled south and headed as far north as Ontario where they appeared on a local radio program.
  • When he made up his mind to record in 1936, he approached H. C. Speirs, a white record store owner in Jackson, MS. Speirs sent him to Ernie Oertle, an ARC scout. Oertle and Johnson went to San Antonio.
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  • In his first recording session in 1936 at a makeshift studio in the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, Johnson recorded songs including ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ and ‘Terraplane Blues’.
  • He returned to recording in 1937, in Dallas and recorded classics including, ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, ‘Little Queen of Spades’, ‘Malted Milk’, ‘Drunken Hearted Man’, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, and ‘Love in Vain’.
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Major Works
  • ‘Terraplane Blues’, recorded in 1936, was Johnson’ first single. A moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies, he used the car model Terraplane as a metaphor for sex with clear sexual innuendos.
  • “Hellhound on My Trail", a song recorded by him in 1937 in Dallas, is considered his greatest. It was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classic of Blues Recording" category.
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Awards & Achievements
  • In 1990, The Complete Recordings, released by Sony/ Columbia won the Grammy in the Best Historical Album category while his song ‘Cross Road Blues" has been inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four songs by him, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Cross Road Blues’, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’, ‘Love in Vain’, in the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
  • The Complete Recordings won the 1991 The Blues Foundation Awards in the Vintage or Reissue Album category. It is a compilation album released on Columbia Records, recorded in the Dallas and San Antonio sessions.
  • He has been inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and in 2006 presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
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Personal Life & Legacy
  • Johnson married Virginia Travis in 1936. She died during child-birth. Later, he married Calleta Craft but left her to become an itinerant musician and had relationship with numerous women wherever he happened to be.
  • There is little evidence to believe that he had any family. However, the blues singer Robert Junior Lockwood was said to be the son of one his ‘girl friends’ as also Claude Johnson.
  • He died on August 16, 1938 after drinking poisoned whisky allegedly given to him by friends of a man on whose wife he showed too much interest. The exact location of his grave is, unfortunately, officially unknown.
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Trivia
  • The character that Chris Thomas King played in the film, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, written, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, of Tommy Johnson is loosely based on this legendary Blues singer.
  • His poorly-documented life has given rise to much legend, including the story that he sold his soul to the devil in order to learn to play the blues.
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See the events in life of Robert Johnson in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Robert Johnson Biography
Author
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
Website
- TheFamousPeople.com
URL
https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/robert-johnson-2703.php
Last Updated
- September 26, 2017

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