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Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was born on 08/05/1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, probably. There is some uncertainty over his birth date, which has been suggested was in 1912 or 1913 based on census information. Some other details and dates of his life are also uncertain. His birth name was Robert Leroy Johnson. Johnson's parents were Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to a landowner called Charles Dodds. Dodds had been forced out of Hazlehurst by a mob after a dispute with white landowners. Julia and Robert left Hazlehurst, but after two years Robert was sent to Memphis to live with Charles (who had changed his surname to Spencer).
In around 1919, Robert was sent to live with his mother around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia had a new husband called Dusty Willis and Robert was nicknamed Little Robert Dusty. At school, he was registered as Robert Spencer. Robert would learn to play harmonica and jaw harp. After finishing school, Robert would take the surname of his biological father, Johnson.
In 1929, Johnson married Virgina Travis. She died in childbirth shortly after. Around this time Son House moved to Robinsonville where Willie Brown lived. House would remember Johnson as a young boy who was a competent harmonica player but not yet a competent guitar player.
Johnson left Robinsonville to go to the Martinsville area close to where he was born. He developed his guitar playing in a similar style to House and learned other styles from Isaiah "Ike" Zinnerman. Whilst living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had acquired a much more accomplished guitar technique according to House who had not seen him for two years. There is a legend that Johnson was gifted his ability to play the guitar by the devil. It is claimed he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by the devil who took his guitar and tuned it. The devil played a few songs then returned the guitar to Johnson who would now have the ability to be a great blues musician in exchange for his soul.
In 1931, Johnson married Caletta Craft. They moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi the next year. Caletta would die in childbirth and Johnson left to travel as a musician.
From 1932 to 1938, Johnson would travel between cities such as Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas. Musician Johnny Shines would accompany him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky and Indiana. Henry Townsend would perform with him in St Louis.
Johnson would not marry again. He would often use different names for himself in different places and had several long term relationships with various women. He would have a long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, the mother of Robert Lockwood Jr.
In 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir who ran a general store and was a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle who was a salesman for the ARC group of labels. Oertle would put Johnson in contact with Don Law to record his first session in San Antonio, Texas. The first recording session was recorded over three days in a room at the Gunter Hotel. He would record the songs "Come On in My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues" amongst others. Johnson's first release was "Terraplane Blues" which became a modest regional hit.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas for another recording session with Don Law in a makeshift studio at the Vitagraph Building. Eleven records from the recording session would be released over the next year.
On 16/08/1938, Johnson died of unknown causes. One theory was that Johnson was murdered with whiskey poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman who he had flirted with a few days before. Another theory is that he died of syphilis.
Johnson and the devil story would become legendary in Blues music history.
In 1980, Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
In 1986, Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included Johnson's songs "Sweet Home Chicago", "Cross Road Blues", "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Love in Vain" in their "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".
In 1990, a Johnson compilation called "The Complete Recordings" won the Grammy Award for Best Historical Album. In 1991, the album won the Blues Foundation award for Vintage or Reissue Album.
In 1998, Johnson's track "Cross Road Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
In 2003, The National Recording Preservation Board added "The Complete Recordings" to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
In 2006, Johnson was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Music History Calendar is written by the Blues Rock artist Marshland Pete
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