LeroyRobert Leroy Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He was born out of wedlock to a woman named Julia Major Dobbs and a man named Noah Johnson. Soon after leaving Hazlehurst, Johnson’s mother sent him to live with her husband in Memphis.
DeltaIn 1919, Johnson was sent to live with his mother in the Mississippi Delta area. He lived with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, near Robinsonville, Mississippi. Johnson soon became known as “Little Robert Dusty” to some of the residents and his schoolmates at Tunica’s Indian Creek School.
MarriageBy 1929, 18-year-old Johnson married 16-year-old Virginia Tavis who died in childbirth shortly thereafter. Tavis’ surviving family members later attributed her death to Johnson’s decision to play secular music, i.e., he sold his soul to the devil.
Son HouseBlues musician, Son House, moved to Robinsonville around this time. Johnson met Son House and attempted to play the blues with him. He could play the harmonica well but was terrible with the guitar. Johnson soon left Robinsonville for Martinsville. When he and Son House met again two years later, House was astonished by Johnson’s guitar skills. It is said that within those two years, Johnson made a deal with the devil.
LegendLegend has it that while working on a plantation in Mississippi, young Johnson expressed his desire to be a renowned blues musician. He was instructed to take his guitar to the crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. While sitting at the crossroads, the devil appeared to him. After tuning and playing the guitar, the devil returned the instrument to Johnson. In exchange for the devil’s skillset with the guitar, Johnson sold his soul. Johnson’s ability to play blues guitar increased significantly and he soon developed a following. He began to make money and attract a myriad of women. He later wrote about this alleged deal with the devil in his song ‘Crossroad Blues.’
ItinerantIn the early 1930s, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith and married a woman named Caletta Craft shortly thereafter. His second wife also died in childbirth. With nothing tying him down, Johnson set out to be an itinerant musician. He traveled across the Mississippi Delta, freelancing as a blues musician.
RecordingsJohnson sought out H. C. Speir who operated a general store in Jackson, Mississippi and acted as a talent scout. Speir ultimately landed Johnson his first recording session in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1936. He recorded several takes of 16 selections during that single recording session.
DeathAccording to blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson drank liquor that had been laced with poison by the husband of a woman he had flirted with. He died in a convulsive state three days later. Others speculated that Johnson may have died of syphilis. Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi at the age of 27.
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