Originally posted August 11, 2008. Last updated September 6, 2018.
Complete Recordings/ King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 1/ King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2
Recorded: Nov. 23-27, 1936 in San Antonio; June 19-20, 1937 in Dallas
Released: 1961 K1, 1970 K2, August 28, 1990 CR
CR The Complete Recordings
Sales (in millions):
Quotable: “If you are starting your blues collection from the ground up, be sure to make this your very first purchase.” – Cub Koda, All Music Guide
“Robert Johnson virtually defined the blues.” BL This Mississippi-born blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player only had one minor hit – “Terraplane Blues” BH – but his influence has been immeasurable. Robert Johnson is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and four of his songs have been named to their Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll list (“Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, “A Love in Vain”).
Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards said, “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.” RJ Eric Clapton called him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” WK The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls his work “the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock and roll were built.” RH
His brief 27 years have fueled popular myth. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to develop his guitar-playing ability. He was poisoned with strychnine by a jealous husband after flirting with the man’s wife. As Johnson was dying, John Hammond, a legendary talent scout with Columbia Records, was trying to track Johnson down for a gig at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. RJ
His slim body of work consists of 29 songs captured in two series of recording sessions. The first occurred in 1936, taking place over three days (November 23, 26, and 27). During those sessions in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, Johnson laid down the classics Cross Road Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, and Ramblin’ on My Mind.
His second series of sessions happened June 19-20, 1937 in Dallas. Here he laid down thirteen more songs, including Travelling Riverside Blues and Love in Vain. 22 of the recordings were released on eleven 78 rpm records within his lifetime. RJ “If we didn’t have these scratchy etchings it would have been necessary for someone to fake them. This is how the blues sound in the root of every imagination.” NC
“The revisionist history is that he wasn’t really the greatest blues musician of his era, he was just lucky enough to get recorded. The response to both stories is simple – just listen to his songs.” TL “Whether the devil made him do it or not, these songs…certainly hit otherworldly extremes. On first hearing this music, Keith Richards assumed Johnson had two guitars.” BL
The King of the Delta Blues Singers album, released in 1961, jump-started the whole ‘60s blues revival.” CK “The majority of Johnson’s best-known tunes, the ones that made the legend, are all aboard” CK “and the apocalyptic visions contained in Hellhound on My Trail are the blues at its finest, the lyrics sheer poetry.” CK
King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2 followed in 1970 and boasted “the first album appearance of…a number of other blues classics penned by the artist.” AG “The music is…impeccable – the self-accompanying bassline boogie was one of Johnson’s greatest contributions to the blues, and it’s displayed in all its beauty here. To top this, there’s the beauty of his melodic work, and the interplay with his semi-gruff voice that help to make his songs memorable.” AG
Then in 1990, The Complete Recordings was released. It contained everything ever recorded by Johnson, “including a generous selection of alternate takes.” STE It “is essential listening, but it is also slightly problematic. The problems aren’t in the music itself, of course…[but] in the track sequencing.” STE “All of the alternates are sequenced directly after the master, which can make listening to the album a little…tedious for novices. Certainly, the alternates can be programmed out…but the set would have been more palatable if the alternate takes were presented on a separate disc. Nevertheless, this is a minor complaint – Johnson’s music retains its power no matter what context it is presented in. He, without question, deserves this kind of deluxe box set treatment.” STE
“Johnson’s masterful writing, with its perfect control of images and emotion, and magnificent guitar playing loom large over music to this day.” TL His “guitar is as polyphonic as the wheels of a train, his voice as elemental as the wind; they pass the listener at an unbiddable distance and leave only the faintest trace, like steam on a window.” NC “He is the true legend of the blues, and anyone with even the slightest curiosity in that genre or rock needs to own both this album and its predecessor, or else the box set…that covers both of them.” AG “If you are starting your blues collection from the ground up, be sure to make this your very first purchase.” CK