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126 of 130 people found the following review helpful
Format: Audio CD
The irony of Robert Johnson's superstar status is hard to miss. He was almost completely ignored by the music-buying public of his day, even in the market his records were aimed at. Yet in the present day, he's practically the only country blues artist most people know about. On one level, this is because of relentless championing by other blues artists, not least Eric Clapton. On another level, Johnson's fame rests on the fact that he was able to write, or more properly pull together from his various mentors and influences, his songs and make them complete unto themselves. His songs have made an impact, and have been covered time and again by countless artists. That counts for something.
Part of who Robert Johnson was as a singer and songwriter is obscured by his legend, which has been retold so often it borders on cliche. But even after the hype has been dismissed, this box set shows Johnson as a powerful, innovative, soulful blues man, a great performer and a great songwriter (in the context of blues songwriting) with his own unique sound.
Johnson was not without his influences, and if he had lived he would have told you that himself. However, the interesting thing was that he managed to transform his influences and personalize them into his own vision of the blues, a blues that was one of the first steps away from country blues toward city blues - a vision that would eventually become Chicago blues.
It has been fashionable in blues circles to put Robert Johnson down recently, and to gripe about how Johnson's influences should be as well known as he is. This is a valid point. However, Johnson became an influence himself, and as such, he still deserves a good deal of respect. This box set, which contains every recording he is known for, is a just tribute to a brilliant singer, songwriter and performer.
The remastering is surprisingly good, considering the sources. Johnson's voice and guitar playing come through vividly and illustrate his wealth of talent. The only possible drawback to this box set, for the casual listener, is the number of alternate takes included. They show that Johnson was an adept performer, because a lot of the alternates are similar to the "released" versions. This showed that he was no closet bluesman or flash-in-the-pan, but was adept at entertaining an audience. And to this day his guitar playing is astonishingly fluid and innovative. However, the repetitiveness of the alternate takes can become trying to people who are not students of the blues, and for the casual listener a single-disc set would probably be sufficient.
This box set, is, and remains, a worthy overview of a talent that received its due far too late. I would advise the listener not to be put off by people who would place Johnson's influences over him, but to listen to Johnson on his own merits. My guess is that he'll win you over, as he has generations of listeners.
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81 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2002
Format: Audio CD
First of all, I took one star off not because I don't think Robert Johnson was a transcendent genius (because I do think that), but because, since his legacy clearly _had_ to be collected and remastered and boxed up in a convenient form, it's a damn shame that they had to make such a bad job of it. The lack of the fifth star is a finger-wag to CBS-Sony, not a rebuke to Johnson.
It's all true, in case you were wondering - Robert Johnson really was the most entrancingly scary and affecting and emotional and technically accomplished Delta blues singer ever recorded. His guitar playing is quite extraordinary; Keith Richards reports in the liner notes that when he first heard Johnson (in Brian Jones' flat) he wondered who the second guitarist was. There wasn't one. Johnson could drive the rhythm and play spooky lead lines at the same time, to a degree that nobody has been able to match. He also had a remarkable voice, veering from slyly lascivious to painfully sad to hell-haunted, depending on the nature of the song. And this is one of the main points about his work.
He was a pro. He wasn't just some unusually spooked country boy, although he was clearly obsessed with themes of damnation and vengeance. He could, by all accounts, play whatever he wanted - a tune as innocuous as "My Blue Heaven" is said to have been in his repertoire. The best glimpse we get of the party-dude side of Johnson is his sprightly "They're Red Hot", which sounds like nothing else on the whole album. But fans agree that his best stuff is about lonely roads at twilight and the feeling that he will never get home, or that if he does, there is only something worse there waiting for him. His lyrics are the finest poetry you're likely to find in the Delta blues idiom, and I include Skip James in that. And that, as any Skip James fan will testify, is saying something.
A shame, then, that CBS (as it was then) decided to entrust the liner notes to a man painfully! addicted! to exclamation marks!, not to mention a man far more fascinated by the oral accounts of Johnson's life than in saying anything enlightening about his music - and that the songs should be rigorously sequenced with master-take-accompanied-by-alternate-version. The result is that, when we put this album on to listen to all the way through, we hear most of the songs twice before we get to the next one. The differences are fascinating enough, to be sure; but would it have killed them to put the alternate versions on a separate disk, so that we could have chosen from two different Johnson sequences depending on our mood? As it is, this is a stupidly "scholarly" sequencing arrangement.
The liner notes, while full of interesting information, are fatally marred by the author's tabloidesque style. It would've been better to get someone who really cared about Johnson's music and could write well - even Greil Marcus, whose chapter on Johnson in "Mystery Train" is the best thing he ever wrote. As it is, we have only the testimonies of Keith Richards, and a fascinating essayette by Eric Clapton to go on.
Clapton writes - righteously - that before he heard Johnson, every other blues singer had sounded as though they were calculating the effect, whereas Johnson sang as though he didn't care whether or not people liked to hear him. This is as good a description of listening to Johnson as I can think of.
This is, unfortunately, the best-mastered, best-sounding, most complete edition of Johnson's work. Pity it wasn't put together with a bit more thought.
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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2010
Format: Audio CD
This collection is disappointing because they've worked so hard to clean up the hiss and scratches of recordings made in a hotel room over 70 years ago, that they've so muffled the voice and music that it just doesn't come through realistically. Sony's King of the Delta Blues (Vol.s 1 and 2) offers a virtually complete collection and the diff in sound quality is startling. While you hear more hiss and scratches, the sound of Johnson's voice has a presence that that the "Complete Collection" lacks. I already owned the latter and upon hearing the former, went out and bought it. Skip the Complete Collection and get the recording that sounds more real, more alive. If you already own the "Complete Collection" and you like the music, bag it and get King of the Delta Blues edition, Johnson deserves to be heard without a towel wrapped over his mouth.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2000
Format: Audio CD
If you are looking for a CD set to fit into your ultimate blues collection, then you must buy this one. There is a very good booklet available with the box set that is not offered with the regular double CD set. The recordings are the same on both CD sets. There is a booklet in the box set with a good biography story of his life. Also, all the words are included so you can kind of "hum along". Explanations of some of the venacular of the day. The recording is typical 78-ish quality of the day. This is a part of blues history that you will need to study the style further. The mysticism of making a deal with the devil, and the story of how he went down to the crossroads, made his deal, and then came back a transformed blues great. It's all here. Other musicians in this style are Son House...check out his excellant "Father of the Delta Blues" CD. And listen to Charley Patton. These are the "big three" of the Delta Blues style. Others went to the crossroads, also...Bukka White has a story about it and so does Peetie Wheatstraw (called "the devils son in law"). All good music from this era. Don't get discouraged about the quality of the recordings. Listen to these CD's several times through before you make your final judgement. You have to get used to the 78-speed sound before you can get to the soul and depth of what's going on. "Must Have" for anyone rediscovering, studying, or just curious about the blues.
5 historically significant stars!
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2000
Format: Audio CDVerified Purchase
Something mysterious was happening in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930's. It could have been at the crossroads of highway 49 and 61 on a dark night with the full moon glowing through the fog. Robert Johnson was trying to flag a ride:
"You can run, you can run tell my friend-boy Willie Brown Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe I believe I'm sinkin' down."
Robert Johnson didn't run though and came back months later to surprise fellow blues musicians Son House and Willie Brown with his newly acquired guitar wizardry. The legend started there and continues today.
Over the years Robert Johnson continues to be a mystery shrouded figure from his guitar skills to his death he was elusive at the time and remains so. The closest one can get to knowing him is through his music and the Complete Recordings has it all.
His songs have been coveredby dozens of performers. Sweet Home Chicago has been recorded at least 139 times, come on in My Kitchen 71 and Love in Vain 36 times. His lyrics although written in the 1930's remain alive and vibrant in today's world as they were at the time.
These recordings made in the 30's are alive and compelling. Robert Johnson was a guitar virtuoso whose work impressed the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. His voice is eerie and haunting.
These recordings were made in the 1930's, and sound that way so for someone used to modern listening they may be an acquired taste. For someone interested in the history of modern rock, pop or blues these are a must have item, regardless of two similar recordings side by side.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2005
Format: Audio CD
The 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' CDs (Volumes 1 and 2), as re-released in 1998 and 2004, respectively, effectively render this release obsolete. On the newer CDs, the digital cleaning is much more apparent and makes a huge difference to sound quality.

However, the 'alternate' takes contained on this edition have yet to be released elsewhere. But to complicate things, the 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' CDs contain a mixture of 1st and 2nd takes, so it's a hit and miss affair. Personally, I prefer the 1st takes of 'Crossroad Blues', 'Me and the Devil Blues' and 'Love in Vain' - and the newer CDs contain the second takes (which is how they appeared on the original releases in the 1960s).

So, for completists (at this point in time), the best bet is to own this set and the newer CDs - which I am sure you do already. Then you'll have everything (until they turn up another alternate take!), but for beginners, check out 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' Vol. 1 and 2.

NOTE: The first 'long box' edition of 'The Complete Recordings' release (in a larger, boxed format which included the two CDs and the liner notes in a separate 'book') contains poor 'remasterings' of the Johnson material. The second edition of 'The Complete Recordings', released in the mid 1990s and in standard double-CD packaging, offered significantly improved sound (but, to confuse things, was still labelled as being released in 1990!). Still with me? As I stated previously, if you have 'The Complete Recordings' in the double CD mid-90s pack, and the new 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' CDs, you're covered.

For a fascinating discussion of the history of 'The Complete Recordings', go to:

[...]

All your queries should be well and truly addressed there!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2009
Format: Audio CDVerified Purchase
This is (as billed) the complete recorded output of Robert Johnson. What makes this collection so interesting is the inclusion of alternate takes for many (but not all) of the tunes. Some of these alternate takes are significantly different from the released take and provide an insight into how variable these performances could be. My favorite Robert Johnson tune, "Terraplane Blues", has no alternate take. Presumably, the person doing the recording just thought "Damn! Can't top that!"
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2003
Format: Audio CD
When I first heard Johnson in 1992-1993 I was not a blues listener at all. His music came almost as a cultural shock. A great thing about this box set is that it makes the understanding of Johnson's music that much easier. The music alone will amaze you but the biographical sketch (though not particularly well-written)& the addition of the lyrics (although the end of '32-20' is missing & I'm skeptical of some of the interpretations) give us so much in the way of candid information & bridge some of that cultural gap. For me Robert Johnson was a gateway into the world of early 20th century ragtime/country/delta/folk blues. Others have said it before me in these reviews but as someone deeply entrenched in the study & appreciation of 'classic blues' I think it is a fatal error & disrespectful to other great artists before Johnson to call Johnson the greatest & 'First Blues Artist'. I've shocked friends by playing them Johnson's 'Love In Vain' & then Leroy Carr's 'When the Sun Goes Down' (recorded almost 10 yrs earlier), a song that Johnson almost entirely copied. The same could be said about a number of Johnson's tunes. Listen to Son House's 1930 recordings & you will hear where Johnson got most of his slide guitar technique. When I listen to Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Charlie Patton & even the female greats like Memphis Minnie & Ma Rainey & Bessie Smith I continually hear ideas that Johnson borrowed & you will too if you take the time. Johnson was a folk musician & as one often borrowed ideas from a wealthy pool of folk lyrics & melodies. Also, one has to consider the fact that Johnson comes from the first generation of musicians who had the privelege to learn songs & ideas from RECORDS which he certainly did. Johnson's real importance lies in his boogie rhythms, the cohesiveness & vision of his lyrics, the variety of his songs (everything from ragtime to folk to boogie music) & his overall presentation. He anticipated rock n' roll in ways that others didn't before him perhaps. Still the fact is that he was very good & I think as good as those I mentioned earlier but not BETTER & certainly not the first. To me this box set deserves 5 stars for the brilliance of Johnson's music & the path it illuminates that leads to blues greats prior to his accomplishments. People will never be able to play music like this again. We are a culturally, spiritually & even genetically different species now.
Listening to Johnson & the other early blues greats puts things in perspective. Like can anyone truely say that Eric Clapton is a great Blues artist after listening to this? I can't at all. Clapton's & other's attempts at recreating this music has been mostly embarrassing to say the least. It's sad to find out how important Johnson was to Clapton's coming-of-age & development as a musician & yet I can't hear any of that original spark or flair or soul in any of the blues he has recorded.
One further thing: This box set is no longer 'Complete.' An alternative take of 'Travelling Riverside Blues' was discovered around 1998 I think. You can actually hear it on the most recent reissue of Columbia's Robert Johnson 'King of the Delta Blues.'
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Audio CD
Before you purchase your copy of Robert Johnson's Complete Studio recordings, there is another copy out there that has a much different sound remaster: The Centennial Collection. Unlike this version, it removes much of the old ambiance of the old record (the scratches, the pops, as another put it, the sound of Pre-WW2), and the guitars are much clearer. However, I actually, have to admit something, that I actually prefer this version of the recordings. I don't know, while the guitars are much clearer and they sound excellent, the atmosphere of the old recordings, the crackles, pops, and the like, just adds to that grittiness of what makes these recordings even more the newer remastered version just didn't have. This is just preference, listen to the two and see which sound you prefer more.

Robert Johnson, what else can be said about him? He's an amazing blues artist, and perhaps one of the most influential guitarists and songwriters of the 20th century. With an influence from almost everybody out there, especially the forever humble Eric Clapton, it's easy to see why he's in almost every guitar poll and creative influence writings. His life was even more interesting, from being poisoned to death, the famous story about him selling his soul to the devil, and the fact that he lived the life he sang, from every Juke Joint, street corner, and dance event in the Deep South. Most importantly though, he transcends his already interesting, almost legend like aura to him, and can create some timeless, rich, and always engaging, and absolutely amazing, unbelievably atmospheric, and genuine acoustic blues.

I'll be honest, Robert Johnson isn't for everybody. The very old production values, coupled with only an acoustic guitar, make Robert Johnson an acquired taste. Even fans of electric blues (Freddie King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy) and the like (heck, even Howlin' Wolf, for that matter) may not particularly enjoy the extremely stripped down and lo-fi Delta Blues that Robert Johnson is known for. However, Robert Johnson's earnest music, intricate, varied, and evocative guitar playing, and the realistic breeding ground for which the music itself was spawned just bleeds through the atmosphere of the song, can quickly grown on you, and once it creeps up into you, it never goes away. The fact that he was nobody, living the actual life of what he sang, just makes these recordings even more authentic than they already sound. Indeed, this is pure, unfiltered, and totally REAL (all caps for a reason, after all), as pure and artistic as other totally authentic masterpieces such as Nick Drake's Pink Moon or Joy Division's Closer, the akin of stepping into someone else's own soul.

I can't think of a single filler track on this record. Even the alternate takes are interesting and compelling to listen to, with enough change and interesting alternations to make you want to sit through it yet again. And hey, maybe it's just an excuse to hear the same glorious songs TWO times! The lyrics themselves are great as well, taking on themes of loneliness, the devil, long lost love, poverty, and every other subject you would expect from a record like this. While the whole album is good, I would have to single out Crossroad Blues, ____ hounds on my Trail, Me and the Devil Blues, Sweet Home Chicago (check out Buddy Guy's version while you're at it), Traveling Riverside Blues, Phonograph Blues, and the completely different but absolutely infectious They're Red Hot. Really though, it has to be heard understand, and then you most certainly will.

Whatever copy you prefer, though, Robert Johnson is essential to check out. There's not much else to say here. No, Robert Johnson isn't the ONLY "acoustic blues" artist worth listening to (for starters, two other influential artists who played old school blues, Leadbelly and Son House, are just as good, and that's just the beginning of the list), but few did it as well as him. If you are sick of facile hacks like John Mayer and the like plaguing the blues legacy, pick up Robert Johnson's studio recordings and experience the real thing. Absolutely essential.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Audio CD
The complete corpus of Robert Johnson is on this 2 CD set. Listening to every cut at the same time, as some people say, can get a bit tedious, given the similarity of the basic instrumental structure in song after song. However, this is one of the early greats in the movement of delta blues to a more urban sound. His work and his life story and its tragic end are part of the same tapestry, it appears.

The text that comes with the music is in small print (my ancient eyes struggle), but there is great bounty in the details. The repeated versions of a number of songs can be interesting. The differences between the two takes of "Love in Vain," for instance, are interesting. At one point, the text says (page 5) ". . .Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last five decades!" I think that this is hyperbole; nonetheless, Johnson's work had a considerable influence on those who came later. In brief essays, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton spoke of his importance in their (and their groups') music.

The song that was his greatest "hit" was "Terraplane Blues." He used the automobile named in the tune's title as a kind of metaphor. Good simple instrumental work and good blues voice. The use of the Terraplane (a car of his day) as metaphor can be inferred from an early set of lines:

"And I feel so lonesome you hear me when I moan

Who been drivin' my Terraplane for you since I been gone."

"Love in Vain" was covered by the Rolling Stones. Johnson's spare version features very simple guitar lines. The singing is simple, too, with some degree of passion (other songs display more of that in his voice than "Take 1"; "Take 2" has more passion than the original version, too).

"Hellhound on My Trail" is a raw blues song. The essence of the song can be captured in a couple lines:

"I've got to keep movin'

Blues fallin' down like hail."

"Another song culminates in the haunting image of Johnson singing that he wants to be buried by the side of the road so that his spirit can ride the Greyhound bus as it passes by. "Me and the Devil: features, again, simple guitar playing, but the blues singing is really strong, with a plaintive note. He begins the song by noting that "Me and the devil was walkin' side by side."

Another song covered by the Rolling Stones is "Stop Breakin' Down." Johnson's version is simpler, of course, but has a compelling edge to it.

So, in the end, if you want to experience one of the early great bluesmen, whose influence was lasting, try this out. Even thought there is some sameness to the music and the guitar playing, this is well worth listening to get beyond the hype and focus on the actual singing and playing of Robert Johnson.
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