It is hard to say what kind of an impact Robert Johnson would have had on the world had he lived longer. Johnson was killed at the age of 27 in Greenwood, Mississippi, after consuming poisoned whiskey while flirting with a married woman. Johnson was a traveling performer and had no real success in the late 30’s before his death. It wasn’t until 1961, when his life’s work was reissued, that musicians such as Eric Clapton began to recognize him as “the most important blues singer that ever lived”.
Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) on the other hand, despite being born about a year before Robert Johnson, managed to live about 40 years longer and therefore became one of the most well-know blues singers of all time along side his rival Muddy Waters. Burnett was constantly successful and not only paid his band members but provided health benefits as well. Burnett died in Illinois (the home of Chess Records) in 1976.
The wake of these two artists is hard to underestimate. Next time you listen to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton/Cream, Fleetwood Mac, George Thorogood, The Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Derek Trucks, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, or Iron & Wine… also take a minute to think a bit about Johnson and Burnett. Two men separated by fame and fortune but united in blues history.