Personalities | Tommy Johnson | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

(Vocals, guitar, c. 1896–1956)

Johnson was a highly influential early blues artist due to the impact of his three 1928 records for Victor, which earned him a niche as Mississippi’s first black recording star. Johnson recorded only three more 78s after that, for Paramount, plus a few unissued sides, but the songs he recorded for Victor (including ‘Cool Drink Of Water’, ‘Big Road Blues’, ‘Maggie Campbell Blues’ and ‘Canned Heat Blues’) became entrenched in the repertoires of many bluesmen to follow.

Inspired by Charley Patton, Johnson developed a unique approach, employing falsetto accents and hypnotic guitar riffs. He learned from an older brother, LeDell, who later told folklorist David Evans a tale of Tommy selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads – a story associated today with Robert Johnson (no relation). Johnson’s reputation as a great bluesman was equalled perhaps only by his notoriety as a drinker, which no doubt contributed to his quick decline. He ceased recording after 1929 and spent his remaining years playing streets and house parties in Mississippi.

Styles & Forms | Early Years | Jazz & Blues
Personalities | Sara Martin | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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