Tommy Johnson Profile:
Born: 1896 in Terry MS
Died: November 1, 1956 in Crystal Springs MS
Even many Delta blues enthusiasts are unfamiliar with Tommy Johnson's enormous impact on the development of the blues. A powerful vocalist with a menacing howl and a haunting falsetto, Johnson was also a gifted guitarist with a complex and technically-advanced playing style. Johnson's influence can be heard in the music of Howlin' Wolf, Robert Nighthawk, and even pianist Otis Spann. Still, Johnson's musical accomplishments are considered below those of contemporaries like Charley Patton or Son House in the Delta hierarchy.
Making His Bones
Taught guitar by his older brother LeDell, by the age of 16 Johnson had turned "pro," playing songs for tips on the street. By the end of the decade, Johnson was often playing across the Delta at house parties and in juke-joints with fellow up-and-comers like Charley Patton and Willie Brown.
Johnson's reputation was built on his fiery live shows, which would stretch on for hours as the singer showboated for his audience. A larger-than-life figure, Johnson drank heavily, and had a taste for both women and gambling. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Johnson wasn't driven to perform. He'd take the stage when he felt like it, or when the money ran low, and he often performed alongside bluesmen Rubin Lacy and Ishmon Bracey.
A Deal With The Devil
Long before the rumors swirled around Robert Johnson, folks in the Delta believed that it was Tommy Johnson that actually met with the devil at the crossroads one dark and stormy night, hoping to strike a deal. Regardless of the myth’s origins, Robert must have been the better negotiator of the two (unrelated) musicians because Tommy Johnson became a mere footnote in the blues genre (even after a character based on Johnson appeared in the hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Johnson's talent was undeniable, however, and it was inevitable that he would record. Traveling to Memphis in February 1928, Johnson cut a number of sides for Victor (later RCA Victor). A second session was held in Wisconsin in December 1929. Johnson would continue to perform until his death in 1956, but he never rose above his humble roots. His talent diminished by alcoholism, Johnson's songs, like "Canned Heat Blues" and "Cool Water Blues," would become blues standards nonetheless.
Recommended Albums: Johnson only recorded briefly, from 1928-1929, and Complete Recorded Works includes the artist’s entire groundbreaking milieu.