The story of Robert Johnson is one shrouded in myth and legend. The old trope of the archetypal rock star ‘selling his soul to the devil’ in order to make other-worldly music, originated with the story of Robert Johnson. He is considered the first Mississipi delta bluesman and has influenced countless musicians decades later. Born on the 8th of May 1911, he died 27 years later from poisoning and effectively started the so-called 27 rock heaven club.
Johnson supposedly learned from Son House and Charley Patton, two of the original delta players. When Son House went off to travel parts of the country, he returned around three years later to find that Robert Johnson had developed his talents almost too well for the amount of time that Son House was gone for. This is where the myth began, that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in order to get ludicrous skills.
Johnson played the guitar throughout the 1920s and ’30s. Around 1936-1937, he recorded what many seem to believe about 29 songs in total. In 1938, or so the legend goes, he was playing a bar, after which he fell terribly ill. Three days later, he was found dead. Some believe that he was poisoned, while others think his deal with the devil ran up and was cursed to die. Either way, his story still remains veiled in mystery, and only adds to the mystique of his influence.
Here though, we took a look at the best covers of Robert Johnson songs, a testament to his legacy which is etched into the annals of rock and roll history.
The 5 greatest Robert Johnson covers:
‘Crossroads’ – Cream
Probably the most iconic cover of a Robert Johnson song, the best-selling supergroup of all time, Cream, through their version, made this tune wholly their own. This is the song that fully mythologised Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil.
The wonder of Robert Johnson is that in his original recordings, it often sounded like there was more than one person playing the guitar. “Simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time,” Clapton commented on Johnson’s style in his autobiography.
‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ – Led Zeppelin
Widely considered the most transformative cover of Robert Johnson, the Zep did a widely different version of the song, giving the track more of a back-beat and Robert Plant took from a few of Johnson’s songs, lyrically.
This song is famously known for the lyric, “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg,” which Plant would take for a later song of theirs: ‘The Lemon Song.’
‘Preaching the Blues’ – The Gun Club
The L.A punk-blues band The Gun Club, with their 1980 debut Fire of Love, took an unsuspecting crowd by storm when they concocted an interesting mix of punk and blues; their cover of ‘Preaching the Blues’ by Robert Johnson is the perfect synthesis and example of this very thing.
Jeffery Lee Pierce had a fiery and enigmatic stage presence and if you think he sounds unstable, that’s because he is. When one listens to Robert Johnson’s version, they realise that The Gun Club’s version isn’t all that different.
‘Love in Vain’ – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Johnson’s music exists as a very strain within the DNA of the Stones. It’s no surprise, then, that only The Stones could pull off a song like this.
It was included on their Let it Bleed record, and honestly, for a while, I thought it was their song. The Stones changed the arrangement quite a bit; Jagger mentions this: “We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson’s. We put in extra chords that aren’t there on the Robert Johnson version. Made it more country. And that’s another strange song, because it’s very poignant.
“Robert Johnson was a wonderful lyric writer, and his songs are quite often about love, but they’re desolate.”
‘Me and The Devil’ – The Doors
Yes, even The Doors did a cover of Robert Johnson. It can be easy to forget, but The Doors are equally based on blues influences as well as jazz. Robby Krieger, the guitar player for The Doors, is underrated as a guitarist, often overshadowed by Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek.
Their version is very stripped back and mostly features the guitar and bass. Right toward the end, it seems like Morrison (as it often does) starts making up new words for a couple of extra bars. It is undoubtedly one of the best versions of a Johnson song.