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Blues legend Robert Johnson makes first-ever recording

Bluesman Robert Johnson is recorded for the very first time in a San Antonio recording studio on November 23, 1936.

The legend of Robert Johnson, arguably the most influential blues performer of all time, began growing in earnest only in the early 1960s, more than 20 years after his death. It was the 1959 publication of Samuel Charters’s The Country Blues that introduced his name to many, but as Charters himself observed of Johnson at the time, “Almost nothing is known about his life….He is only a name on a few recordings.” What is well known about those recordings is that they helped inspire a blues-rock revolution in the decade that followed—a revolution led by young British musicians like Eric Clapton and Keith Richard. What is less well known, perhaps, is just how small that body of work actually is.

In his short but hugely influential life, Robert Johnson spent only five days in the recording studio, recording only 41 total takes of 29 different songs. Thirteen of those takes and eight of those songs—including “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Terraplane Blues”—were captured during his first-ever session, on this day in 1936, in a makeshift studio set up in adjoining rooms of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio. Johnson returned to the Gunter Hotel twice more later in that same week, and then recorded once more over the course of two days in 1937 in Dallas. The results of those sessions were 12 78-rpm records issued on the Vocalion label in 1937 and 1938, the last of them after Johnson’s death by poisoning at the hands of a jealous husband on August 16, 1938.

Almost immediately, Johnson’s recordings gained a cult following among blues collectors like John Hammond, who would later gain fame as the “discoverer” of artists ranging from Billie Holliday and Big Joe Turner to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. Yet from 1938 to 1961, when Hammond convinced Columbia Records to release an album of Robert Johnson recordings called King of the Delta Blues, Johnson was more of a rumor than a reality. King of the Delta Blues, however, would spark a strong resurgence of interest in his life and work—a resurgence that would nevertheless fail to turn up many verifiable details of his life beyond the dates of his birth and death and of his few recording sessions.

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