The Story Behind the Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines Cover Photo

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photo courtesy Robert Johnson Foundation/Getty Images

The story of the photo gracing the cover of the American Songwriter “Blues Issue” is as beguiling as its possible subject, Robert Johnson.

The picture is considered to be the third verified photograph of Johnson, the Mississippi-born musician regarded as the King of the Delta Blues Singers. (Johnson is the man purportedly pictured on the left; on the right we supposedly see Johnny Shines, a Memphis-born bluesman who traveled and played with Johnson on and off throughout the ’30s.)

Johnson is, of course, one of the more mysterious figures in American music. We know very little about his actual life; so little, in fact, that a Greek-sized myth took shape around him – namely, that he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar brilliance.

In his short life, the man from Hazlehurst, Mississippi made just 29 recordings. But even so, his small body of work would go on to alter the course of American folk and popular music. Johnson died at age 27, after being poisoned at the hands of a jealous husband whom he allegedly cuckolded, or so the story goes.

The history of the “third Johnson photo” unfolds like detective fiction. Zeke Schein, a Robert Johnson enthusiast and guitar merchant who works at Matt Umanov Guitars in New York City’s West Village, stumbled upon it back in 2005 while looking at vintage guitars on eBay. The photo was advertised as “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B King???”.

Schein soon realized that neither of the gentlemen in the photo was King. The asymmetrical left eye and long, bony fingers of the figure on the left were tell-tale signs. This could very well be Robert Johnson, he thought to himself. Schein placed a bid on the photo and ended up acquiring it for $2,200. He still owns it to this day, though he assigned the copyright to the Johnson estate. “It’s their family and I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says.

Over the last decade, there has been much dispute as to whether this is in fact Johnson pictured. Lois Gibson, one of the world’s leading forensic experts, issued a sworn affidavit in recent years attesting that it is the famous bluesman. Claud Johnson, Robert’s son, has always maintained that it is his father. And even if this isn’t Johnson or Shines, the photo itself is an undisputed masterpiece, a pictorial tomb of the unknowns for the bluesman of old. — from the May/June 2015 Editor’s Note

American Songwriter recently talked with Schein about the photo.

Has any new information come to light in recent years about the photo?

I’ve done a lot more research since then on the image and I’ve done research on the clothing being worn by the guitarists themselves. Lois Gibson weighed in again on what she was seeing with it, and my [initial] thought was the clothing couldn’t have existed before a certain point, but I was wrong.

If you look at the early videos of Cab Calloway from 1930 and ‘31, his band is wearing very similar clothing to what Johnny Shines has on — that white suit, it looks almost identical. Not Cab, he’s wearing a tuxedo but his band has these big white suits. Johnson’s tie [that he’s wearing], that skinnier tie, is earlier [in time] than what I had thought, and the suit could be anywhere between early ‘30s to … well, it didn’t change much until you get to the late ‘30s, where they started going into way wider lapels and way wider shoulder pads — so they’re not zoot suits, they’re like earlier suits. So it’s hard to say where it falls in. The estate is calling it circa 1935, and I’m going to go with that. I think it was right around the time of the Johnson cigarette photo after living with it for longer and doing more research on it.

A lot of people since then, well-known musicians, have come into the shop and congratulated me on the find and agreed that it’s Johnson. Carroline Shines Edwards [Johnny’s daughter] went on her Facebook page and said it’s a photo of her father, [and that was] not with me asking but to someone else in a private conversation. So that was kind of cool. [Editor’s note: Carroline Edwards Shines told American Songwriter: “Yeah, that’s dad.”]

Steve Earle was recently interviewed by Steve DiGiacomo for Billboard and he is on record where he says he believes that this photo is the third picture of Robert Johnson. Jack White had sent me an email … he believes what I found is the same man. Johnny Depp was in the store and he’s a big blues fan and he also said congratulations on the photo. So I guess people who I respect are seeing the same thing I’ve been seeing.

Before he passed, [blues writer and historian] Sam Charters had said he agreed that it was Johnson and Shines, and he was the one who put Shines on Chicago/The Blues/Today! [a seminal 3-disc set released by Vanguard Records in 1966]. He said couldn’t believe how young Shines looked in that photo, but he agreed that it was absolutely him. I had that as an email from someone who had interviewed Sam Charters for a BBC documentary.

It was also on a [VH-1] TV show called “For What It’s Worth.” I brought the original photo to the studio because I thought it would be good to publicize it and let people see it and that it existed as a photo because some people were claiming that I photo-shopped it.

So you’ve still got the actual photo?

I still own the photo and assigned the copyright to the estate, so they control use, because it’s their family and I thought it was the right thing to do.

What’s your general take on Robert Johnson in terms of his influence?

In my opinion, he was the Jimi Hendrix of his time period. That’s important because what he did was take styles that already existed and sort of combined them in ways that people had not done. I think just like Hendrix coming out of the Chitlin’ Circuit and coming out of the Ike Turner school of guitar playing, Robert Johnson definitely borrowed heavily from people who came before him, but he put it out in a way that was his own and unique voice. I do think it sounds more like Chuck Berry and people who were recording at Chess Studios like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I think it was the origins of what we came to accept as rock music. I think it was very important, and in that time period as important as Hendrix was in the ‘60s for guitar.

Regarding the guitar that’s in the photo, do you still believe that to be a Harmony guitar from the  mid-’30s?

I believe it’s a Chicago-made guitar. When they were doing solid peg heads in Chicago, usually they were slot heads up until ‘32. So it’s post 1932. They went to 14 frets later on but it’s really hard to identify. The tail piece you see, you don’t have a logo on the guitar. What I thought was a logo was just a tear in the emulsion in the photo. I looked at it much closer, there is no logo. Half of the tuners are broken, so there is a set of stripped tuners hanging off of the guitar.

There is no nut so we can’t identify how it was strung, so we don’t even know if it’s being held upside down. No logo, no nut, no strings. In terms of it being a 12-fret Chicago-made guitar, absolutely it is. The headstock is the Harmony headstock. It’s what you’d see coming out from Harmony. It’s different from Kay, it’s different from Regal. Harmony was making guitars for a lot of different stores and it could have had any brand name on it. It could have been Bluebird, it could have been Harmony, there were hundreds of them.

–The May/June 2015 issue hits newsstands May 5.