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Review: Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Edition

Robert Johnson
The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Edition
[Columbia/Legacy (2011)]

The 100th birthday of Mississippi delta bluesman Robert Johnson was celebrated on May 8, 2011, and Sony/Legacy has decided to honor one of the greatest American blues legends and musicians of all time by issuing a newly-remastered two-CD set of 42 master and alternative takes from 1936-1937.

The first CD details Johnson’s visit to San Antonio, Texas and includes 16 tracks that made it to vinyl and 6 alternatives. Song favorites like “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Cross Road Blues,” “32-20 Blues,” “Terraplane Blues,” “Dead Shrimp Blues,” and “Come On In My Kitchen” are included. The second CD, recorded in Dallas, includes 13 tracks and 9 alternate takes, including such favorites as “Stones in My Passway,” “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Love in Vain Blues,” Malted Milk,” “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” and “Little Queen of Spades.”

Did he sell his soul to the devil down at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 at midnight in Mississippi? You be the judge! But whatever the outcome, Johnson soon landed a recording contract for a series of 10-inch 78 rpm singles for Vocalion, Oriole, Conqueror, and Perfect before he died on August 16, 1938 at the age of 27 under mysterious circumstances. Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winters, Keb’ Mo, Junior Parker, Elmore James, and countless others have name-checked Robert Johnson as a seminal influence. His voice, best described as a late-night growling ball of thundering yowl, mixed in with some slippery, raw blues guitar progressions transport the listener to an 8th dimension of suspended evil and heavenly bliss. For those eager to jump into the limitless mysteries of the blues, this collection of Robert Johnson might be the best place to get your feet wet.

—TJ McGrath (Woodbridge, CT)

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