Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Among my old albums is a Columbia Blues collection by Robert Johnson titled “King of the Delta Blues Singers” (CL-1654).

Apparently Johnson only lived long enough to make a couple dozen recordings, and then died or was killed just a few months after doing those sessions.

I have read in a past column about his old 78s being worth big bucks. But is it just certain ones, or are all of them? How many are there?

Lastly, it's nice to see you include Robert Johnson on your short list of the greatest Blues guitarists.
—Carl Stafford, West Bend, Wisc.

DEAR CARL: The Robert Johnson saga is compelling on many fronts, one of which is that he accomplished so much in so little time.

In his only two recording sessions — late 1936 (San Antonio) and June '37 (Dallas) — Robert laid down 42 amazing tracks, most of which are original compositions.

Of this total, 24 tunes came out on 12 Vocalion 78 rpms between December 1937 and February '39:

Vocalion 03416: “Terraplane Blues”/“Kind Hearted Woman Blues” (1937).
Vocalion 03445 “32-20 Blues”/“Last Fair Deal Gone Down” (1937).
Vocalion 03475: “I Believe I'll Dust My Broom”/“Dead Shrimp Blues” (1937).
Vocalion 03519: “Crossroads Blues”/“Rambling on My Mind” (1937).
Vocalion 03563: “They're Red Hot”/“Come On in My Kitchen” (1937).
Vocalion 03601: “Sweet Home Chicago”/“Walking Blues” (1937).
Vocalion 03623: “Hell Hound on My Trail”/“From Four Until Late” (1937).
Vocalion 03665: “Milkcow's Calf Blues”/“Malted Milk” (1937).
Vocalion 03723: “Stones in My Passway”/“I'm a Steady Rolling Man” (1937).
Vocalion 04002: “Stop Breakin' Down Blues”/“Honeymoon Blues” (1938).
Vocalion 04108: “Me and the Devil Blues”/“Little Queen of Spades” (1938).
Vocalion 04630: “Love in Vain Blues”/“Preaching Blues” (1939).

Another five tracks, ones from the 1937 session not released as singles, finally surfaced on the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” (1961) and “King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2” (1970) albums.

They are: “When You Got a Good Friend”; “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”; “Traveling Riverside Blues”; “Phonograph Blues”; and “Drunken Hearted Man.”

These are the 29 songs that make up the Robert Johnson discography. The additional 13 tracks widely available on numerous CDs are simply alternative takes of several of the essential 29.

Besides the Vocalion 78s, many of the same singles came out simultaneously on other labels, Melotone, Perfect, and Oriole among them — a common practice at that time.

Values do vary slightly from one title to another, but ANY near-mint Robert Johnson 78 can be expected to sell in the $3,000 to $6,000 range.

I can't think of another artist, with at least as many singles as Johnson, whose EVERY original record is valued in the thousands. Not a one is likely to be found in a bargain bin.

DEAR JERRY: I have often heard records referred to as wax, heard dee jays call their programs Wax Works, etc., and seen record stores named Wax Museum, etc.

Knowing most records are made of one type of plastic or another, what is the wax connection?
—Amanda Carlson, Huntington Beach, Calif.

DEAR AMANDA: What they reverently refer to as wax is really beeswax, and there is a connection.

The very first recordings, the graphophone cylinders of the 1800s, are made of beeswax.

By 1890, carnuba wax, made from the carnuba palm tree, became the preferred material for cylinders.

Though pretty much replaced by shellac and plastic about 100 years ago in the recording industry, bees still make wax and carnuba palms still grow, especially in Brazil.

These two essential waxes are commonly found in candles, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and polishes.

IZ ZAT SO? The King of the Delta Blues Singers more than that. Robert Johnson is indeed the most influential Blues performer in history. His songs have been recorded by hundreds of Rock and Blues artists.

Rolling Stone magazine lists Robert Johnson as No. 5 on their “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list.

As for Blues guitarists, only B.B. King ranks higher.

Only two photographs of Johnson are known to exist, one a studio shot and the other taken in an arcade photo-booth machine.

Robert Leroy Johnson died August 16, 1938, at just 27.

History records his death as a result of someone putting strychnine in his whiskey, and a case of pneumonia that immediately followed the poisoning.

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