Robert Johnson: Devilish Detail

Illustrator Christopher Darling Brings the Myth of the Legendary Blues Musician to Life

Today's premiere commemorates the 100th birthday of late bluesman Robert Johnson. The film, which features illustrations from Brooklyn artist Christopher Darling, centers on the urban myth of the singer-guitarist selling his soul to the devil, a tale fueled by his itinerant lifestyle, otherworldly talent and renowned prowess as a ladies' man. In celebration of the May 8 anniversary, Sony has released a new box set of Johnson's late 1930s recordings, The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition, which includes a double-disc CD, a DVD of the 1997 documentary The Life and Music of Robert Johnson: Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? and 12 vinyl reproductions of his original records. Johnson died tragically young at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by a jealous lover. He was famous for his unusually long fingers, with which he nimbly performed complex compositions. "Bryan Jones first played these records for Keith Richards in the early 60s, and Richards said, 'But who's the other guy playing?' And the answer was, 'It's just one guy!'" says multi-Grammy-winning producer Steve Berkowitz, who helped to mastermind the project. Berkowitz compiled his top-ten list of blues talent from Johnson's era below.

"Blind" Willie Johnson
His best songs are "If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down," and "God Moves On the Water." It's gospel music, but it's all blues and otherworldly. He was a guitarist and also sang with his wife; it's just the deepest, scariest most wonderful, uplifting, reverential music. 

Louise Johnson 
There are only four songs of hers ever known—all spectacular. No one knows much about her, other than she recorded with Son House and Charlie Patton. There's a story about a car ride from Memphis to Wisconsin: she was Patton's girlfriend, but they were in the same car as Son House, and by the time they arrived she was Son House’s girlfriend. Something was going on in the back seat!

Lonnie Johnson 
He did one of the first guitar solos ever with Louis Armstrong, and is one of the greatest players that ever lived. I love his version of "September Song," which is right at the end of his life, on an album you can't really find anymore called The Living Room Sessions.

Leroy Carr 
Carr is a piano player who was a great influence on, among other people, Ray Charles. He unfortunately drank himself to death, after recording hundreds of songs. The last he recorded was "Six Cold Feet in the Ground." And then he died!

Scrapper Blackwell 
There weren't that many solo guitar players in a group context. Scrapper's one of them. Scrapper Blackwell and Lonnie Johnson are two of the most seminal early guitar players, which extends from blues to jazz to country, to bluegrass to rock and roll and R&B, and forward. Listen to any of the songs he played with Leroy Carr.

Blind Willie McTell 
A terrific songwriter. I love "It's Your Time To Worry." Bob Dylan wrote a very beautiful song called "Blind Willie McTell."

The Mississippi Sheiks 
The supergroup of the blues. Their song "Sitting On Top of the World" has been copied by everybody. They're at a crossroads of blues, jazz, folk, ragtime and bluegrass.

Tampa Red 
One of the earliest on the scene in Chicago. He was a guitar player and a singer, idolized by Muddy Waters and a lot of the then-younger Chicago blues musicians who had moved up from the South. His song "You've Got To Love Her With a Feeling" is wonderful. He also had a band and went electric pretty early.

Big Maceo Merriweather 
He sings one my favorite songs of all time, which is called the "Poor Kelly Blues." Big Maceo was an original, and the most important piano player in Chicago.

Little Walter 
The Jimi Hendrix of harmonica, a beautiful singer and writer. At first he was in Muddy Waters's band, and then he left and had his own hits. He had a short, tragic, alcohol-filled life. "Can't Hold Out Much Longer," "You Better Watch Yourself," and "Blues With A Feeling" are some of my faves.

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Conversations (2)

  • Michaelr23
    The endearing history of Robert Johnson is interesting and this is amazing animation, the fluidity is really just fascinating for so few inbetweens. Key poses are just great. The history of musicians making deals with the devil doesn't start and end with RJ though, it goes all the way back to the 1700s: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>
    • Posted By Michaelr23
    • June 25, 2011 at 5:39AM
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  • c_kenn
    nicely done! you are obviously a fan of r.j.: the detail you included in the drawings was great: Vocalion, the name of the hotel in Texas... very cool.
    • Posted By c_kenn
    • May 12, 2011 at 4:25PM
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