78 rpm records were issued during Johnson's lifetime and one posthumously.
They were just "race" records then--another casual attempt at trying to
capitalize on the blues. Needless to say, they were enough to establish
his identity wherever he went and afford him a degree of fame and fortune
for the short time he lived after their release.
Including the material that never saw issuance on 78's, there are 29 compositions and alternate versions of nearly half of them. Including the recent discovery of a previously unknown alternate take of one of Johnson's recordings, a total of 42 recordings remain to this day--the only recordings of one of the true geniuses of American music, blues singer extraordinaire Robert Johnson.
For the people too young to have known him; for those not fortunate enough to have shared the same time and space as he; for those who knew of him during his lifetime, but never took the time or had the inclination to seek him out; and for those who did and failed, due to one cause or another, his records are all you will have. But in the minds of countless others, there remain the memories of a jook-joint musician--what he looked like, what he did when he played music, how he was crazy about women, and all the countless intangible aspects of meeting and seeing another human being. To most of them, however, he was just a rambling musician.
He was rambling so fast, in fact, that he rarely gave anyone more than a glimpse at his shining star. Indeed, he hardly received more than a casual, passing glance, and was seen at the time by only a few of his musical associates and even fewer aficionados to be the consummate artist he was.
Moreover, only his family and a handful of childhood friends knew anything of significance about him, and most of those who survive have only recently come to realize his seminal importance in the world of today's popular music.
To his half-sister, Carrie Spencer, he was the baby brother who got caught in the upheaval that her family underwent so many years ago. They became very close over the years, and upon his death, "Mama and them didn't want to tell me about Robert bein' poisoned. They knew it'd hurt me so. But by them not tellin' me and lettin' him be buried by the county, why, you know that hurt me even more."
To his late stepfather, Dusty Willis, he was no good...because he wouldn't get behind that mule in the mornin', plow behind him all day long, all week long, all year long, all for nothing--to be told at the end of the year, if you did well, that you only owed the bossman $300 on next year's crop!
To his friend R.L. Windum, he was the schoolboy with whom he used to blow harmonica and who grew up to be a fine and famous guitar player: "Robert come back here every year, wantin' me to go with him, but I never went; just never followed that life."
To Willie Brown, he was the little boy to whom he showed the rudiments of guitar--how to make chords, when to change, how to play anything he wanted.
To Son House, he was the little boy who could play harp pretty good and would slip off from home to hear him and Willie Brown. When the youngster tried to play the older musician's guitar, Son scolded him, "Don't do that, Robert. You drive people nuts. You can't play nothin'." Years later, Son could only stand off and blink.
To Ike Zinnerman, he was the fellow who used to stay away from his wife all weekend to learn the guitar and the blues and songs Ike played.
To Robert Lockwood, Jr., he was the man who lived with his mother. "Before Robert come along, I always wanted to be a piano player, but he got me offa that and onto the guitar. He was such an inspiration to me-he took time with me and showed me things, and he didn't do that with nobody--I never thought about the piano again."
To Johnny Shines, he was a living idol; someone he tagged along behind and from whom he tried to learn about music and the guitar. "When I first heard him play. I felt then that I had to learn to play like him. Here was somebody that was doin' the things that I felt like was right and naturally I was quite inspired by it."
To Don Law, he was the shy, young bluesman he recorded in Texas in the 1930s who "had never been off the plantation on which he was born!" Law's other recollections of Johnson are equally distorted, inaccurate, and misleading.
But to John Hammond, champion of black music and talent scout par excellence, he was the greatest primitive blues singer of all time. "When I was selecting talent for my first Spirituals to Swing Concert, I sent for Robert Johnson. I wanted black music to make an impression on a white audience and we got the finest exponents of blues, jazz and gospel music that we could find. Can you imagine how famous Robert Johnson would be today had he been able to make it?"
And to the world at large, however unaware it might be, Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last six decades!