Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in the small community of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He died 27 years later, leaving an estranged wife, a larger-than-life legend, and only a handful of recordings—barely showing his huge potential as a blues stylist.
One hundred years after his birth, he remains one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and his small catalog—recently collected in the excellent two-CD Centennial Edition—is one of the strongest pillars of rock ‘n’ roll. Johnson has inspired a range of musicians, so to mark his birthday, Paste presents 10 of the best Robert Johnson covers.
The Stones slowed “Love in Vain” down to a crawl, settling into the song as if to savor the heartbreak. The studio version on Let It Bleed features sobbing pedal steel and a raw mandolin solo courtesy of Ry Cooder, but it’s surpassed by the version on 1970’s Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out. Live, the song becomes a powerful showcase for Mick Jagger’s loose vocals and Keith Richards’ spidery guitar work. The cover from their 1995 live album, Stripped, however, could be smug parody.
On this standout on her 1993 album Blue Light ‘til Dawn, Cassandra Wilson sells Johnson’s innuendo as sweet seduction, dipping into her lower register and flirting with meter to reveal the unfathomable heartache motivating her invitation. The halting jazz arrangement truly sells the composition, however, especially that lascivious, sinister bass growl and the rim clicks that sound like rain on the roof.
On their 1980 debut, the Gun Club injected some supremely nervous punk energy into Johnson’s version of “Preaching the Blues” (which is often credited to Son House or simply labeled traditional). The song almost gets away from them, as the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce howls out his unhinged vocals and the guitars repeat that riff so persistently it becomes creepily hypnotic.
Long before she became a country artist, Lucinda Williams was an acoustic blues singer, and her debut opens with this sleek confident cover of “Rambling on My Mind.” She hadn’t quite developed her signature slur in 1979, but backed by guitarist John Grimaudo, she gracefully conveys the restlessness of the lyrics.
Perhaps the most famous and transformative Robert Johnson cover. In 1969, Led Zeppelin turned the song into a pagan boogie that showcases Jimmy Page’s insistent central riff, John Paul Jones’ fat bass line, John Bonham’s impossible beat, and Robert Plant’s possessed performance, which borrows from at least three Johnson compositions.
Long before white British kids discovered him, older black bluesmen were playing the hell out of Robert Johnson’s tunes, chief among them Howlin’ Wolf. His hoarse delivery and blaring harmonica lend the tune a strident groove, as if he doesn’t quite grasp the sexual undertones.
Few artists have done as much to make Robert Johnson boring and tasteful than Eric Clapton, who recorded a deadly album of covers in 2004. But this version of “Cross Road Blues,” recorded with the short-lived supergroup Cream, gets points for exploding the power-trio format. Maybe Clapton just needed Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to egg him on.
North Mississippi juke blues is typically torrid and electrified, needling listeners until they can’t help but dance along. And particularly through his later albums with Jon Spencer, R.L. Burnside conveyed a larger-than-life persona that at times borders on cartoonish. But unplugging for 1997’s Acoustic Stories, he shows a more tender side on this cover, which derives its considerable power from his agile guitar work and precarious vocal delivery.
The late bluesman Williams had a strange voice, slightly froggy and pitched like a quietly reminiscent preacher. His 1966 album Classic Delta Blues includes several Johnson covers, although “Hellhound,” which turns the original into a ruminative internal monologue and features fine scallops of guitar licks, is arguably the best.
From the 1940s through the early 1960s, the Alabama-born, Chicago-raised singer developed a unique, urbane vocal style that incorporated aspects of rural musical traditions, allowing her to cover Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” as well as Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” On the latter, she sounds impossibly sleek and commanding, trading jabs with the horns and slyly insinuating more than the lyrics make explicit. Like Johnson, she died young—at 39 and at the peak of her fame.