Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition
Robert Johnson/Various Artists
[Rating: 4 ½ stars]
Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection
[Rating: 5 stars]
Robert Johnson didn’t invent the blues, though many people almost seem to think he did. But Charley Patton, Blind Blake, Son House, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and numerous others created the template that Johnson built his style upon.
The stories about Johnson making a deal with the devil to go from being a second-rate player to a genius are probably just that, stories. In all likelihood, Johnson just went off for a few months and found a woman to feed him and woodshedded and wrote and built his chops. But what chops he built, and what songs he wrote.
The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and countless others – mostly young white Brits – were hip to the black music of the South while American whites were still listening to Bobby Vinton and complaining about what Ray Charles had done to poison their kids. And while some other southern blues artists would inspire those Brits, it was Johnson who really lit a fire under them. Songs like “Love in Vain,” “Crossroads,” “Steady Rollin’ Man,” Terraplane Blues,” “Stop Breakin’ Down,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and others would never have seen the light of day with white rock audiences of the ‘60s and ‘70s if it hadn’t been for the fascination of Jagger, Clapton et al with the incredible musicianship, gutbucket emotion and writing skills of Robert Johnson. He was a master of incorporating sexual innuendo (“Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” “Queen of Spades”) into his songs, and could make a real composition out of the most mundane of topics, like food (“They’re Red Hot”), while sometimes playing the parts of three people.
Johnson’s entire recorded history is available on Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, a two-CD set that is basically a re-issue of 1990’s Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released to celebrate what would have been Johnson’s 100th birthday in May had he not been (allegedly) murdered at 27. The 2-CD set doesn’t hold any significant surprises for anyone who owns the latter or has heard all of Johnson’s material. But for any serious fan of music and music history who is uninitiated, this is necessary listening. Because without the sides that Robert Johnson laid down in a few Texas recording sessions, popular music as we know it today just wouldn’t exist. And there’s no way that anything so raw, urgent, honest and almost otherworldly can get anything less than a five-star rating.
To capitalize even further on Johnson’s birthday, though, Columbia/Legacy has gone several steps further with an innovative package called Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition. In addition to the aforementioned 2-CD set, this package contains vinyl replicas of Johnson’s 78 rpm singles (which play at 45 rpms), as well as a 1997 documentary DVD with Keb’ Mo, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, Clapton and others. The package also includes two CDs of artists from the same time period, some of whom actually recorded in the same Brunswick Record Building location in Dallas on the same days as Johnson. These CDs are interesting for their historical value more than musical, and they aren’t all by blues artists. Acts such as the Chuck Wagon Gang, Hermanas Brazza Y Daniel Palomo (this was in Texas, remember), and the Light Crust Doughboys are here, as are bluesmen Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie McTell. This really is an excellent package with some other cool extras, but not one that a lot of people will be picking up at a price of $300+.
If you aren’t familiar with Johnson, or don’t have any of his recorded works, you’re missing out. He was the real deal, and whether you know it or not, maybe a big reason that you’re listening to what you’re listening to today.