FROM JOOK JOINT TO JAZZ LOUNGE
"I first liked 'Dead Shrimp Blues' because it was played in B and then it went to the E and use of that key - it's really old stuff - like he was the origin of electric music ... Robert Johnson, I suppose. And he was the origin of jazz - the original original jazz musician, where jazz meets blues. That's what Hot Tamales is."
Peter Green: March 1998
Even more so in death than during his short wild life, Robert Johnson has been a hostage to relentless change. Ever since his violent, young bluesman's end, aged 26, the legend has been re-written as new facts come to light. And so the further away in time that mysterious killing gets in Greenwood, Mississippi on August 18, 1938, the closer we get to knowing Robert Johnson, the man. His whisky poisoned by a jealous husband, Johnson died two days after a strychnine rush had reduced him, some say, to barking like a crazed dog on the floor of some jook joint where he was gigging with Honeyboy Edwards. For decades after his murder there wasn't even a photograph of this Delta blues virtuoso. Right at the time he died his career was about to shift up from bars to the bright lights. Instead, a heavy producer from New York, John Hammond, gave Big Bill Broonzy the mega-break intended for Robert Johnson, deceased. And so for years the legacy was his recorded music - 16 tracks recorded in a hotel room in San Antonio in 1936, and 13 more in 1938, this at two sessions time in a Dallas hotel. Johnson's fee? An awesome 75-100 dollars for the two sessions, reportedly.
Because so little was known about the man, blues lore and tales of Legba (voodoo for Satan) built up a dark legend instead. This meant that in the 1960s when CBS released the King of the Delta Blues Singers albums, Robert Johnson mostly could be what your imagination wanted him to be. Not so in the 1990s.
Two revealing photographs have surfaced showing him to be a sharp, mean-looking dude.
What's more, technology has wiped the phonograph-hiss cobwebs from his records enabling us still more acutely to feel the danger and desperation there at the heart of his music. During the vinyl format era this performer's haunting old blues seemingly drifted in from some far-off bygone place, but now the voice is right here in the room. Sixty years after he died, Robert Johnson's presence is more forceful than ever.
But really there are two Robert Johnsons - legend and artist. There's the voodoo myth about a man desperate enough for acclaim to want to mess with Satan; and then there's Johnson the pre-war blues musician. Here was an innovator who developed a unique style of guitar playing, was able to craft songs - openly drawing on influences from bluesmen such as Son House, Skip James, and Charlie Patton - and, crucially, could write lyrics which were as ahead as the playing. And in a similar way there are two Peter Greens ... first, the musician and eccentric who has made an inspiring return to the stage after years in a personal wilderness. And then there's the mythic rock legend who supposedly was spiked with bad acid causing him instantly to give up stardom and riches; who supposedly became a Dickensian-style gravedigger with dagger fingernails; who supposedly threatened to shoot his accountant unless the hapless bread-head took back a fat royalty cheque; etc, etc.
On the face of it, possessing these dual-identities legend and artist - is the only thing that these two bluesmen's lives have in common, coming as they do from cultures as diverse as hoodoo and the humid bayous of 1920s Mississippi, and immigrant Jews in 1950s bomb-ravaged east end London. Or is it?
Another crossing of lifelines is that their respective peers regarded both guitarists as nothing special in their mid-teens, only to be dumbfounded by their unreal progress a year or two later. Of course, Johnson's legend has it that he went down to a remote crossroads to have his guitar tuned by a big black man, thereby cutting a voodoo deal with the devil.
Folklore aside, it is a known fact that previously, blues players such as Son House had laughed him off the stage - Johnson was OK on harmonica but painfully bad on guitar. But then two years after his young bride's tragic death in childbirth they now listened to him, aged 20, in complete awe. He was so good it was bad - as a young Muddy Waters discovered when he witnessed first hand the sinister vibe that Johnson could unleash through his guitar playing:
"He was in a little town called Frye's Point," Muddy Waters told NME writer Charles Shaar Murray back in 1977, "and he was playing on the corner there. People were crowding round him and I stopped and peeked over. I got back into the car and I left because he was a dangerous man...and he really was using that git-tar, man. I crawled away and pulled out because it was too heavy for me."
Peter Green's talent exploded in 1966 - also in his twentieth year. That February he auditioned for R&B/soul outfit Peter B's Looners and - irony of ironies - wouldn't have got the gig if it had been left up to Peter Bardens' drummer and future founder member of Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood. And yet by the end of the same year Green had replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, who'd moved on to form Cream. So whereas some 40 years earlier Robert Johnson managed to blow away the great Son House, Peter Green's playing seemingly in no time had come alongside - some even said had bettered - that of .... God. Typically, for Green's first try at nailing down Johnson's music in the studio he chose one of the most difficult slide guitar pieces ever - 'Preachin Blues'.
A rational explanation for both guitarists' apparently supernatural progress is that each found himself driven by a spiritual calling: obsessed, as opposed to possessed, to an extreme where for months and years on end nothing else mattered other than practicing guitar for as close to 24-hours-a-day as needing sleep and breaking off for food intake would allow. For Peter Green this metamorphosis mostly took place at home in Putney with his parents' blessing; nobody knows where Robert Johnson spent those two years.
Johnson's childhood - he was born on May 8, 1911 - was far from happy: there were several disapproving stepfathers and surnames he'd rather not have had, and it was only aged 17 that Robert Dodds Spencer became his own man by taking the name of natural father Noah Johnson. Around that time he married, but drifting by then was second nature to him. Because his young bride died whilst Johnson was away, he was fiercely snubbed by friends and family.
18-years-old Johnson left town and set out on a road paved with unreal creativity for the first two years. Then gradually he got sidetracked, and followed a route to self-destruction which would take him another six or so years for him to complete. Yet, throughout all this his art thrived; which suggests that a part of Robert Johnson's genius was an ability to keep his head even as he lost his mind. His most haunting songs - 'Hellhound on My Trail' and 'Stones in my Passway' chronicle a paranoiac path to madness. The whisky helped him on his way.
Johnson was some lush according to contemporaries such as Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards, and songs such as 'Malted Milk' tell us that the DT's paid him visits. But isn't it a neat coincidence that those "spooks all around my bed" which Johnson describes in that song also augur a dream that Peter Green would set to blues-rock some thirty years later.
'Green Manalishi' sprang to life in the dead of night after a mescaline-induced dream Peter had where an apparition, in the form of a green dog, visited him - there at the end of his bed. Peter has since described that green dog as "strange, kind of spooky, like voodoo." 'Manalishi' was a song driven by fear as potent as the stuff that inspired 'Hellhound on My Trail'. At the end of these compositions - both seriously modern blues in their day - you are left in no doubt: the singers are teetering on the very edge .... with a gale gusting behind them.
There are other scenarios adding to this parallel lives notion. For instance, Johnson's sharecropper family repeatedly was persecuted and intimidated by the plantation owners, whilst Green as a child often heard of scary anti-semitic thuggery taking place at the end of his street, thanks to the right-wing Mosley boys. But at one crucial stage their lifelines diverge: Johnson recklessly pursued his music to the end, by living up to a legend bound to kill him.
In stark contrast, the English guitarist had the will and wit to survive and figured out a way of doing this. In the early 1970s, to all intents and purposes he killed off Peter Green, rock star, and took up the few remaining threads of a normal life left for him as Peter Greenbaum. He distanced himself from the remorseless music business.
Fast forward some twenty mostly bleak and troubled years for Peter, to summer 1995 and an incredible turning point in his life. Peter, then aged 48, was staying with his old friend's family and Nigel, after work and perhaps a bit of fishing by the two, sometimes would take out his National steel guitar. At this point Peter was still with long-ish fingernails and avowedly against ever playing again. And yet it was the music of Robert Johnson, as played by Nigel, which achieved the seemingly impossible. Peter takes up the story: "Nigel was playing some fingerstyle Robert Johnson - not the slide stuff that I've done in the past. And I thought 'Wow, that sounds more like the record than I've ever heard anyone do it.' My dad always used to say that I hadn't got the patience to learn how to do some things properly. It's not that... it's just that if I'm not all that impressed with it - it doesn't allure me enough to want to learn. But when I saw Nigel doing so well I thought maybe I could learn some new things too. But before he could even contemplate taking up guitar once again those world famous fingernails had to be trimmed - a task Peter entrusted to Nigel's wife Sandra."
So, against all the odds, Peter picked up a guitar once more; and so began impromptu short practice sessions in Nigel's kitchen playing songs like 'Steady Rollin' Man'
Very gradually these led, over the following year, to Peter wanting to return to the stage with a new band The Splinter Group. In the middle of their set just Peter and Nigel performed two acoustic Robert Johnson numbers 'Steady Rollin' Man' and Nigel's arrangement of 'Travelling Riverside Blues'. Perhaps it was the especially strong applause that this spot always got from audiences which set this tribute album in motion.
The sessions began at KD's studio in Acton, London during September 1997, initially with Peter and Nigel working as a duo. Some of the songs took on a quite different groove a couple of months later, when the rest of the Splinter Group came in for the '32·20 Blues' session. With Kenny Denton, Peter and Nigel producing, The Splinter Group quickly nailed down arrangements set out mostly by Watson. Thanks to creative input from the group's co-manager Stuart Taylor. The Street Angels were invited into sessions and Paul Rodgers added his vocal to 'Sweet Home Chicago'.
Peter: "If it was me I would have done 'Phonograph Blues' just like we practiced it - just jamming away where I play slide and Nigel does whatever he wants to do."
Nigel: "The arrangement of 'Phonograph' and "32:20" was originally my idea with piano on it. Pete didn't really want to sing with piano."
Peter: "But then when we played it back and I heard my singing it wasn't too bad - it came off in some ways. My voice fitted in with the other instruments and it sounded like a jazz lounge thing."
So here they are. Classic cuts tracing a very personal journey both for Peter and Nigel - as well as a musical journey from the wide open Delta to the intimate jazz lounge.
'Jet' Martin Celmins. Manchester. March 1998.
"Pete and I have always shared this love and respect for animals: animals don't tell lies; they live on their wits and instincts; and often it's in a dangerous environment. Those are the kind of things Robert Johnson's music and guitar playing mean to me."
Nigel Watson: October 1997
Special thanks to The Estate of Robert Johnson for their participation in this project.
Special Thanks To: Bob Grummitt for guitar maintenance, Linda Lewis, Greg Bone, Sandra Watson, Stuart Taylor, Mich Reynolds, Cathy Fehler and Pamela Kerr.
Management: Misty Music Management, Fax: 0171 387 5683, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(P) (C) 1998 Snapper Music
Artisian Recordings, A Snapper Music Label
All rights of the producer and of the owner of the recorded work reproduced reserved. Unauthorized copying, lending, hiring, public performance, and brodcasting prohibited.
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