You can pick just about any genre of rock ‘n’ roll and trace it back to the Mississippi Delta Blues. Maybe not the founder of the blues, but arguably the most distinguished figure in the history of the blues, was the one and only Robert Johnson.
Born Robert Leroy Johnson on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Miss., Johnson would have been 100 years old this year. Not only is the bluesman legendary, but he is also a mythical figure. At the age of 27, Johson died on August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Miss., and left behind a trail of broken hearts and a small catalog of 29 songs, which some consider the zenith of music.
To put Johnson’s legacy more into a modern-day context, his songs have been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones to Stevie Ray Vaughn and so many more.
Another muscian had an idea how to pay his respects to Robert Johnson on his 100th birthday. Todd Park Mohr and his Colorado-based band Big Head Todd and the Monsters gathered several blues legends to record some of Johnson’s songs. The project became known as the Big Head Blues Club, and the album would be dubbed 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Ryko/Big Records) with a successful tour following.
“We have been planning and working on putting the Robert Johnson tribute tour and album for about two years now,” Big Head Todd and the Monsters frontman Todd Park Mohr said of the endevour.
The inspiring tribute album features Big Head Todd and the Monsters playing 10 foot-stomping barroom blues interpretations of some of the most fundamentally important music of the past 100 years. Featured songs include the classics – “Cross Road Blues,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Done,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Along with Mohr (guitar, vocals) he is joined by Monsters bandmates Rob Squires (bass), Brian Nevin (drums), and Jeremy Lawton (keyboards). However, it is the special guests who truly standout on this tribute to the blues legend.
Appearing on the album are living legends B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhiten and Hubert Sumlin. There is also a new crop of blues players like Cedric Burnside, Ruthie Foster, and Lightnin’ Malcolm on the record.
“Once we had put the tour together with some of the artists, other artists like B.B. King became very interested,” Mohr said. “Getting them involved was easy.”
The album was recorded in Memphis at the historic recording studio Ardent Studios, which has seen everyone including Led Zeppelin, the Staple Singers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Dylan and The White Stripes. Grammy award-winning blues producer Chris Goldsmith handled all the production.
“Chris asked all the artist what their favorite Robert Johnson songs were, and then he chose the songs that appear on the album 100 Years of Robert Johnson,” Mohr said of the song selection process. “We didn’t know who was going to sing what; he (Goldsmith) just wanted to get a vibe for what people were interested in. It turns out we were all centering around the same songs. We didn’t really do much experimenting after that. For me personally, how I ended up choosing was mainly on the basis of which lyrics were more penetrating.”
In recording these songs Mohr, was able to play an incredible 1919 Gibson L-3 acoustic guitar, which was very similar to Robert Johnson’s L-1. This gave Mohr, who has been a long-time fan of Johnson’s playing, an education about where Johnson was coming from.
“Robert Johnson is one of the most important guitar players and blues singers of all time. He has influenced much of American music that followed,” Mohr said. “He has influenced many musicians I admired even before I began to study Robert’s music. But after studying Robert’s music, I’ve learned a lot about acoustic blues and the musical structures of Delta blues. In studying his singing, guitar playing, and the songs themselves, I experienced a blues enlightenment. There is a rich complexity, a vulnerability and humanness throughout the Delta blues traditions that is often overlooked. In a way the Delta blues that Johnson represented is really the blood and guts of everything else that followed.”
With 100 Years of Robert Johnson, Mohr hopes the album will ignite a renewed interest in classic blues. Even in an age of technology, where music seems somewhat disposable, Mohr feels Johnson’s music and all legendary music will continue to be timeless.
“I’m not afraid of Robert’s music being forgotten. He and legends like him will always be remembered and studied. Technologies like Itunes, Pandora, and Rhapsody are making many of the early recordings of blues and folk performers available. It seems there is just as much interest now in early blues music as ever,” Mohr said.
Mohr and his bandmates continue their blues music education as they have taken their show on the road delivering Johnson’s music to the blues faithful on a six-week tour. Not only is the band playing the songs from the album, they are learning the rest of Johnson’s songs while on the tour bus.
“One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had has been riding on the tour bus with Hubert Sumlin and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards. Hubert is 79 years old and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards is 95. Together they sat up all night retelling crazy stories of the old blues days. Spending six weeks on the road with this kind of environment is probably one of the most entertaining things that has happened to me,” said Mohr.
“Then when we went on tour together we all worked together to learn many of the other songs.”