By: George Varga
The list of artists who credit Robert Johnson as a profoundly important musical inspiration ranges from Eric Clapton and ZZ Top to the White Stripes and bassist-turned-Grammy Award-winning album producer Chris Goldsmith.
But when Big Head Todd & The Monsters leader Todd Park Mohr first heard an album of Johnson’s solo acoustic classics during a music appreciation class in college, he was decidedly unimpressed.
“I didn’t think much of him, initially — he sounded warbly and old-fashioned to me,” recalled Mohr, who at the time was a fan of Led Zeppelin, Cream and other amped blues-rock bands that had built on Johnson’s innovations.
It wasn’t until the past year that Mohr, after being repeatedly nudged by his manager, came to appreciate Johnson’s enduring greatness. Justly hailed as the “King of the Delta Blues,” Johnson laid the foundation for modern Chicago blues and — by extension — helped create the template for the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that followed.
“It’s really hard to overestimate the influence Robert Johnson has had on rock and on everybody from the Stones and Zeppelin to the White Stripes and Black Keys,” Mohr said. “His songs are exquisitely put together, he has a really strong singing voice, and his lyrics are really powerful and tender. It’s been a whole new discovery for me.”
The result is the new album, “100 Years of Robert Johnson,” which provides a welcome new spin to such timeless Johnson songs as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “All My Love’s in Vain” and “Crossroad Blues.”
The 10-song release was produced by Goldsmith and features Big Head Todd & The Monsters collaborating with such blues greats as B.B. King, ex-Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, 95-year-old Delta blues mainstay (and former Johnson collaborator) David “Honeyboy” Edwards, ace harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite and vocal dynamo Ruthie Foster.
Due out March 1 on Ryko/Big Records, the album is being preceded by a national tour that began Jan. 28 in San Francisco and concludes March 8 in Urbana, Ill.
“The performances will be different from night to night, because we’ll have different guest artists,” Mohr, 45, said. “I think we’ll include some songs that our guests are known for, so that Hubert might do ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World.'”
Mohr and Goldsmith strived to add a fresh spin to the album. They avoided rote arrangements and mixed in polyrhythms inspired by the work of the late Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose life and music were saluted in “Fela!”, the hit Broadway musical.
“We paid attention to the form of the music, without replicating the exact style of Johnson’s era,” said Mohr, who raved about Goldsmith’s production skills.
“I’m totally blown away by Chris and his ability to work so well with these veteran artists,” Mohr said. “He really took charge of the musical direction, which made it easy for me to just sit back and sing. Things went so well that I think there will be other chapters to this.”
Goldsmith stressed that his goal was to ensure that “100 Years of Robert Johnson” didn’t sound like other Johnson tribute albums, too many of which slavishly recreated his songs without adding anything new or different.
“We wanted to go back and get into the soul of Robert Johnson,” said Goldsmith, who has won multiple Grammy Awards for his production work with the esteemed gospel vocal group The Blind Boys of Alabama.
“We wanted to figure out what Johnson’s intent was and to see what kind of music came out of the band after exploring the intent of the lyrics and the emotion of the songs. So we paid attention to the form of the music and to the unique chord structures and time changes he did. I pitched them on the idea of getting in touch with the dark side of Johnson, not the Disneyland version, and maybe working in some African beats and a heavier approach. That kind of resonated with them and, next thing I knew, I had the job.”
Except for B.B. King, who recorded his impassioned vocals for “Crossroad Blues” at a studio near his Las Vegas home, nearly all of the album’s songs were cut at the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis. Total recording time: Less than 36 hours.
“I just couldn’t believe Chris was able to get this album made in three days,” Mohr said.
In turn, Goldsmith was full of praise for Mohr, his Big Head Todd band mates and the guest artists featured on the album.
“It flowed beautifully,” Goldsmith said. “Todd is an amazing talent. I’ve been aware of him and his band for years and of their more popular songs. But I never got my head around who they were as artists. Todd’s vocals are remarkable. He really got into the artistry of Robert Johnson and learned every song, note for note. He really wood-shedded, so that when it was time to extrapolate and interpret those songs anew, it was based on a strong understanding of what was done before.
“The rest of the band was great and brought in a creativity of their own. Everybody clicked. It was one of the smoothest recording sessions I’ve ever been part of.”
The goal of not trying to replicate Johnson’s music resonated strongly with Sumlin. The oft-copied guitarist rose to fame in the 1950s through his work with Howlin’ Wolf and rival Chicago blues king Muddy Waters, as well as through sessions with Chuck Berry.
“I like his songs, but I’m not Robert Johnson,” Sumlin said. “And I’m not trying to play his music like him.”
A ROBERT JOHNSON PRIMER
Blues and rock would sound very different if not for the pioneering music of Robert Johnson. Here’s a quick look at his short but monumental career.
Born: May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Miss.
Died: Aug. 16, 1938 (from an apparent poisoning), near Greenwood, Miss.
Musical legacy: Enormous. Although he only wrote and recorded 29 songs, their impact is felt to this day.
Best-known songs: “Crossroad Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Hear them on: “Robert Johnson: The Complete Collection” (Sony)
Later recorded by: Johnson’s classic songs have been recorded by the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Blues Brothers, Cassandra Wilson and Eric Clapton, who in 2004 made the tribute album, “Me and Mr. Johnson.” Peter Green, John Hammond Jr. and Rory Block have also recorded Johnson tribute albums.
Quote of note: “It was so much more powerful than anything else I had heard or was listening to,” Clapton said of Johnson’s music during an interview with NPR. “Amongst all of his peers I felt he was the one that was talking from his soul without really compromising for anybody. … In one way or another, he’s been in my life since I was a kid.”
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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