Jan., 1896 - Nov. 1, 1956
~ by Road Dawg
Born in Hinds County Mississippi on the George Miller Plantation in 1896, his family moved to Crystal Springs in 1910. Introduced to the guitar by his older brother, LeDell, Tommy Johnson ran away from home at age sixteen to become a "professional musician," meaning that he played on street corners for tips, the typical beginning of many Delta Blues artists' careers. After moving to Jackson, he often played with Ishmon Bracey of Jackson, as well as Willie Brown and Charley Patton of Dockery Farms fame.
As a significant blues artist, Tommy Johnson, a contemporary of Charley Patton, preceeded Robert Johnson to whom he was not related. The crossroads "deal with the devil" legend regarding Tommy Johnson existed years before Robert Johnson gained that reputation. Tommy Johnson also had a reputation as a hard drinker and womanizer, even among fellow blues artists who were known for their carousing. If normal alcoholic beverages were unavailable or unaffordable, he would strain shoe polish or Sterno through bread and drink that to get high. His famous ode to Sterno, Canned Heat Blues, has been recorded by many and provided the name for the blues/rock group Canned Heat that recorded the well known album Hooker 'n' Heat with John Lee Hooker.
His playing had all the earmarks of the early Delta Blues style and his versatile vocals ranged from a menacing growl to chilling falsetto. He recorded for only a two year period, but left behind a highly significant discography. A version of his Cool Water Blues was covered by Howlin' Wolf. His blues song,Maggie Campbell, provided a chord progression that has been used by generations of bluesmen and rock bands. His Big Road Blues was covered by Floyd Jones.
A slow descent into alcoholism eroded his abilities and one too many drinks of Sterno took its toll. He died of a heart attack playing a house party in November of 1956.