There's something haunting about Robert Johnson's voice. The blues singer-guitarist sounds at once cock-sure and frightened, giving his recordings the feel of both perspiration and a cold sweat. As I wrote in Friday's Wall Street Journal review (here), Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony/Legacy) continues to illustrate that given a chance, simplicity and passion will trump technique and quantity every time. I also spoke with Steven Lasker, the new set's engineer. More with Steven in a moment.
Johnson recorded only 29 master tracks, yet he was one of the most powerful influences on jazz, folk and rock of the '40s, '50s and '60s. Why is this the case? After all, there were plenty of blues artists before and since, and many were authentic products of the Mississippi Delta. There are three general reasons, with the first two being less important than the third.
First, the spare number of sides that Johnson recorded helped establish his mystique. Scarcity has a way of concentrating focus and increasing demand. Second, Johnson died young—at age 27. He was poisoned after fooling around with the owner of a juke joint outside Greenwood, Miss., where he was performing. Sudden death and high-risk affairs also work wonders on legacies.
But even more important is the fact that Johnson's recordings are emotionally restless. As you listen to them, they come across like an uncontrollable shiver. His guitar playing is jangly and jarring, as though he's strumming an aluminum instrument with copper wires. Through his wails and low-voice grumbles, we taste the clay dust of the South and smell the thick foliage. In this regard, Johnson's songs have transporting powers.
While all of Johnson's recordings have been available digitally since the '90s, this new set is absolutely free of hiss and pops, and now has a conical depth and warmth that makes Johnson sound even more intimate and contemporary. You can even hear the guitar strings move and his hands slide down the neck.
Born in 1911, Johnson took an early interest in music. His career began in earnest in 1930, after his wife and child died in childbirth. Restless, Johnson moved steadily from town to town with his guitar, playing for money whenever he could land a job. Unlike his contemporaries, his blues wasn't the stuff of cotton picking or hammering railroad ties. Instead, what we have are stories of love, travels and battling personal demons.
Johnson also offered the listener enormous variation. His guitar playing switched from rhythmic swing to twangy lines, often within the same song. There's also an economical purity to his playing. Johnson never tries to show off but instead is merely concerned with a solid rhythmic accompaniment and textured interchanges with his voice.
Adding to his aura was Johnson's claim that his guitar-playing prowess was the result of a chance midnight encounter with the devil at the intersection of several roads. Johnson certainly understood the value of being mystified by one's own genius and the drama of of summoning Mephistopheles.
Unfortunately, Johnson's recording success swelled his head, leading him to think of himself as invincible. Which is yet another reason why '60s British guitar rockers found his blues so endearing and his story so compelling. What's '60s rock without demons?
Johnson died in August 1938—just months before being discovered on a national level. As Stephen C. LaVere writes in the the new set's liner-notes bio:
"In late 1938, [producer] John Hammond began recruiting talent for his first From Spirituals to Swing concert. He called Don Law in Dallas and asked him if he could round up Robert Johnson and get him to New York for his presentation at Carnegie Hall. Hammond thought Johnson the greatest of all the country blues players and wanted him to fill one of the opening slots in his show.
"Law got the word to [record company owner] Ernie Oertle, who set out to locate Johnson. It had been more than a year since Oertle had been in contact with Johnson, and it took some digging before he learned the truth and got it back to Law—Johnson had died recently under uncertain circumstances...
"Johnson's failure to appear at From Spirituals to Swing was a great disappointment to Hammond, and he never stopped pondering what it could have meant to Johnson had he been able to make it."
Johnson remains a ghostly figure, his songs being the only evidence we have of a bluesman who seemed to have visited the future and was merely reporting back in song.
JazzWax note: If you already own earlier issues of Robert Johnson's recordings from the '90s and are wondering whether the new set sounds good enough to replace yours, I would say there's no comparison in terms of clarity, warmth and detail.
How good is it? I reached out to Steven Lasker, the Johnson project's engineer, for a little detail. Here's what he said:
"Hi Marc. The hiss was reduced, and most of the clicks and crackle were removed, by a single pass of CEDAR CAMBRIDGE. Then the 24-bit tapes went to Seth Winner, who spent some 50 hours intensively removing what clicks and crackle remained with CEDAR retouch, along with considerable 120-cycle hum that came off of the original recording equipment in Dallas in 1937. Seth also miraculously fixed the engineer's 'duck and recover' at the end of Malted Milk. He is the only person ever to fix this problem, which is found on the original 78-rpm and all other issues.
"I have something like 100 different styli to select from, and a proper fit gives best sound. Then, too, I use a stylus with a sensitive cantilever which picks up lots of musical information—and lots of non-musical extraneous vibrations, which is why most transfer engineers settle for a stylus with a stiffer cantilever.
"I've also figured out how to tame the non-musical vibrations with a tonearm stabilizer, a device of my own invention. This allows the stylus to consistently track down the very center of a lateral groove, which is where the small fractals are found. It allows me to track at a far lighter tracking force.
"This is important, because with a heavier tracking force, separation is lessened. The equation is the greater the separation, the less mud in a transfer. (The theory behind all this was first, at least to my knowledge, explained in an article in the September 1939 issue of Fortune magazine, which, among other things, attempted to explain why there was so much greater separation and higher fidelity on vertical recordings as opposed to lateral ones.)
"Better mechanical playback technique results in higher fidelity sound, it's that simple. By the way, there was next to no equalization applied to these transfers other than turnover eq.
"Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about a subject I'm passionate about: how to get the best sound out of a 78-rpm coarse groove."
JazzWax tracks: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony/Legacy) comes in two different packages. The first is a two-CD set that holds Johnson's master and alternate takes from his San Antonio and Dallas sessions in 1936 and 1937, respectively. You'll find this two-CD set here.
Sony also is issuing a Centennial Edition with 12 78-rpm replicas that spin at 45-rpm. The set includes the two CDs of Johnson's recordings plus a CD of blues recordings that Johnson may have heard coming up and a CD of other artists who recorded on the same days as Johnson and in the same studios. The final disc is a DVD of The Life And Music Of Robert Johnson: Can't You Hear The Wind Howl. You'll find the set here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago with terrific scenes of what I assume is Chicago in the '30s...