His guitar wizardry made folks in the Mississippi Delta believe he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his talent.
When Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones first heard one of his recordings, he couldn’t believe it was only one guy on the guitar and asked, “Who’s the other guy playing with him?”
Blues guitar great Robert Johnson, who was born 100 years ago yesterday in Mississippi, is truly one of the “legendary” founders of blues and rock and roll; a legend that is based as much on his flimsy biography as for his guitar proficiency.
Although he was later one of the founding inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was almost completely unknown during his lifetime. What is known is that he was born in Mississippi and spent some time in Memphis as a boy, where his father moved after separating from his mother.
As a young man he played harmonica and jaw harp in the Delta, where musicians claimed he was a terrible guitarist at the time. He reemerged a short-time later as a beast on the strings, birthing a myth that he had entered into a pact with the Lord of Darkness at a crossroads at midnight.
Were it not for a handful of poor recordings made in San Antonio in 1936 and a year later in Dallas, his name and image would most likely have been forgotten forever.
Instead, when his recordings resurfaced in the early 60s, he was able to influence several soon to be rock guitar gods, like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page.
In August 1938, Johnson was playing shows around Greenwood, Mississippi, when he died from poison said to have been administered by the jealous husband of a woman he was seeing.
His death at the age of 27 began a dark tradition later continued by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain.