On Friday, November 27, 1936, Robert Johnson, a 25-year-old Blues musician from Mississippi, had his third recording session for ARC Records.
The location of these sessions was The Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The ARC recording crew of A & R man Don Law and engineer Vincent Liebler had converted Rm.414 into a recording studio for the duration of their several weeks stay in San Antonio.
Johnson’s first session had been on the previous Monday, November 23. It had been quite productive, with a master disc of each of eight songs recorded, and an equally-fine, alternate take “safety” disc made of most of those eight as well.
Among the songs recorded on the 23rd were: “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Terraplane Blues.”
On Thursday, November 26, Johnson recorded again, but cut only one master. The song was “32-20 Blues.”
November 26 was, however, a busy day for the men from ARC. They recorded a white gospel group known as the Chuck Wagon Gang and the Mexican musicians Andres Berlanga and Francisco Montalvo with Robert Johnson in-between.
On Friday, Novmber 27, Johnson got to go first in Rm.414.
He started off with two “hokum” tunes, “They’re Red Hot” and “Dead Shrimp Blues.”
Then Robert Johnson got down to business.
In this order, the singer/guitarist recorded “Cross Road Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)” and “If I Had Possesion Over Judgement Day.”
Years later, Don Law would remember Robert Johnson as being “slender, handsome, of medium height, with beautiful hands.” He also described him in the recording studio as “embarrassed and suffering from a bad case of stage fright, Johnson turned his face to the wall, his back to the Mexican musicians. Eventually he calmed down sufficiently to play, but he never faced his audience.”
In an article about Robert Johnson published in the September 1990 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, author Jas Obrecht quotes guitarist Ry Cooder’s challenge to this account.
“Listen to Johnson’s singing and his forceful personality. This is a guy who was afraid of his audience? Hell, no! This is a ‘chew them up and spit them out’ kind of guy. I’ll tell you what he was doing. I think he was sitting in the corner to achieve a certain sound that he liked.”
“Find yourself a plaster corner,” Cooder goes on, “without wallpaper or curtains sometime – all those hotel rooms were plaster. Go and sit facing the corner with your guitar tight up against the corner, play, and see what it sounds like. What you get is something called ‘corner loading.’ It’s an acoustic principle that eliminates most of the top end and most of the bottom end and amplifies the middle, the same thing that a metal guitar or an electric guitar does. He wants to hear wang!”
Listen for yourself.
The first record that ARC released from these sessions was “Terraplane Blues” b/w “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” This was #03416 on the Vocalion records label. It hit the stores on January 4, 1937.
Thanks to the commercial success of “Terraplane Blues,” Robert Johnson recorded again for ARC, on June 19 & 20, 1937 in Dallas, Texas.
Sadly, Robert Johnson died under mysterious circumstances on August 16, 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi.
The 13 recordings he made at the Dallas sessions combined with the 16 he cut in San Antonio brought his complete catalogue to a grand total of 29 songs.
In 1961, Columbia Records released an LP containing 16 of Robert Johnson’s songs, including five from the sessions of November 27, 1936.
The LP was entitled: The King of the Delta Blues Singers.
“Good music doesn’t get old.”