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Why Robert Johnson is the top blues legend

April 29, 2011 |  2:35 pm

Neil Young, Keith Richards, T Bone Burnett, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt explain.

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Why is Robert Johnson, above all other blues players, the preeminent figure in that bedrock form of American popular music? That question, one that delves into the artist and the myth, is explored in a Sunday Calendar piece by Randy Lewis.

But whether Johnson's reputation was the outcome of a supernatural bargain or simply natural-born talent combined with patience and practice, Johnson remains the man most broadly considered the preeminent bluesman of all time, a reputation that grows only more solid as the 100th anniversary of his birth in Hazlehurst, Miss., approaches on May 8.

Consider that during his lifetime his biggest-selling recording, "Terraplane Blues," sold about 5,000 copies. When the "King of the Delta Blues Singers" LP surfaced in 1961 with 16 of his songs, it sold about 20,000 copies. Since its 1990 release, a two-CD box set of all his known recordings has sold 1.5 million copies. That's despite detractors who have suggested his reputation is over-inflated.

Hundreds of musicians from the famous to the obscure have recorded his songs over the last half-century since Johnson's own recordings first surfaced in a major way. Dozens of tribute albums have been recorded, and books, plays and films have been made about his extraordinary life, much of it shrouded in uncertainty.

So let's ask them.

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“Just look at the picture of him with the acoustic guitar: His fingers are in the weirdest position. If you’re a guitar player looking at that, you know this is a guy who’s not even thinking; he’s just there. … The soul of his creative originality plays a huge part in music making for everyone who’s ever written a song and really known what they’re doing.”

— Neil Young

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“He might have actually sold his soul to the devil. [Laughing] You know why? He was just an unbelievably great guitarist, a mind-blowingly great guitarist. ... He also was a great composer on the guitar. He wrote, what, 29 songs? Almost all those songs are different from one another. There’s a lot of depth to it.”

— T Bone Burnett

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“I think it was just more extraordinary things in such a short period of time and a skill set above and beyond. It was ridiculous how good he was at what he did. It was just like a moment, a fleeting moment of music. The fact that we’re still talking about him like this...”

  — Robbie Robertson

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“I prefer to steer away from superstition and mystification of these things because, I think in a way, it cheapens it all somehow. If it’s as easy as that, then anyone can do it. ... I think he was just incredibly gifted, and he found how to make the most of that.”

— Eric Clapton

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“You think you’re getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson -- some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, ‘This guy must have three brains!’ ”

— Keith Richards

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“The deepest, scariest, most elemental and hair-raising blues there is.”

— Bonnie Raitt

ALSO:

At the crossroads as Robert Johnson centennial nears

The Civil Wars: Marching into the unknown

Cigar box guitar revolution: 'It's like folk music turned inside out'

-- Compiled by Randy Lewis

Top photo: Robert Johnson. Credit: Delta Haze Corporation / Sony Music Entertainment

Second photo: Neil Young. Credit: Getty Images

Third photo: T Bone Burnett. Credit: Getty Images

Fourth photo: Robbie Robertson. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Fifth photo: Eric Clapton. Credit: Getty Images

Sixth photo: Keith Ricards. Credit: Getty Images

Bottom photo: Bonnie Raitt. Credit: Getty Images

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