Talk to any blues or rock musician worth his/her salt, and they’ll tell you, so much of modern blues and rock `n’ roll can be traced back to one very influential blues singer-songwriter who recorded far too little and was dead way before his time, Robert Johnson. Johnson was born May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and died August 16, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi, allegedly after being poisoned by the husband of a woman he was involved with.
In 1990 Columbia Records/Sony Music released a complete two-CD boxed set of every song — and alternate takes of every song — Johnson ever recorded. The set include the only two known photographs of Johnson. Executives at Sony hoped sales would perhaps reach 20,000 units, but instead, the set went on to sell over a million units, the first blues recordings ever to do so.
Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin all cite the music of Robert Johnson as a primary influence on them, but that’s just the short list. Others who’ve credited Johnson include Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones; various members of Fleetwood Mac, who started out as a blues band; and even Rod Stewart, whose early career was marked by plenty of great blues singing. Johnson’s songs provided pioneering blues-rock bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, and other groups with some of their most memorable and popular material.
For Todd Park Mohr of the Colorado-based group Big Head Todd and the Monsters it’s an honor to be on the “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial” tour, which comes to McCarter Theater on Friday, February 25. Joining Mohr is David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who is 95 and was playing with Johnson the night he died. (Edwards’ cousin dated the legendary singer). Also on stage will be the Wood Brothers (with Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin, & Wood), guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the guitar and drums duo of Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm. The tour is in support of a recent record, “Big Head Blues Club, 100 Years of Robert Johnson.”
“Johnson’s recordings, his work, and his life story all put together, along with a handful of other Delta musicians like Son House and Charley Patton, are part of a tradition that’s now a part of Western culture,” Mohr says in a phone interview from his Denver, Colorado home.
In September, 1998, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland devoted a week to Robert Johnson’s life and music. Performers included Warren Haynes of Government Mule, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman from the Grateful Dead and its various splinter groups, and a half-dozen other national acts in a week of film screenings, lectures, and concerts to celebrate Johnson’s continuing influence on blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Growing up near Denver, Mohr says blues music had a huge impact on him. “When I was a kid, blues was the music I cared about most and tried to emulate most. I bought a lot of blues records as a young person. There wasn’t much of a blues or rock scene growing up here. It was mostly Western and cow-town kind of shows coming through here.
“I recall riding my bike to the theater at Five Points to hear James Brown.” He also saw his favorite blues performers at the theater, people like Albert Collins, gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, and regional touring acts like Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows, a Chicago-based band. “Albert Collins and Albert King were prime influences on me as a kid,” Mohr says.
Mohr began playing guitar as a 13-year-old. Initially, he played saxophone and clarinet as well. His parents had a piano and an organ in the house. Mohr’s father reupholstered furniture, and his mother worked as a hairdresser.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters were signed in 1993 to Giant Records, a division of Warner Brothers, run by Irving Azoff. They have toured throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe with the healthy marketing budget of Warner Brothers behind them.
“Now, we’re back recording for another major label, this time with RykoDisc, who have become part of Warner Brothers,” Mohr says. The band’s most recent record was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis and produced by Chris Goldsmith.
“He’s a very successful old time producer in terms of getting great performances out of people,” Mohr says of Goldsmith, “and he’s really musically savvy and has a lot of musical ideas. He works super fast, and we recorded the album in three days. He can work with these 90-year-old guys where you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen. We all worked on choosing the songs to record together, and he asked all of the artists to pick out their top five Robert Johnson songs,” Mohr says.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters — the band’s name is a play on words from legendary blues singer Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson — has been lumped into the into the pop-rock arena but also has been considered part of the “jam band” scene since they began to tour nationally in the early 1990s.
‘But, let’s face it, the original jam bands were playing Robert Johnson songs,” Mohr says, correctly noting that extended solos in modern music are nothing new and a concept that is firmly entrenched in the blues tradition. The band was formed 22 years ago, says Mohr, who sings and plays guitar and is joined by bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin, and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. All three members of the original trio — Mohr, Squires, and Nevin — met and graduated from Columbine High School in 1983 and 1984. (Yes, that Columbine High School, Mohr adds.) “We were a trio for 15 years but our newest member, Jeremy, has been with us the last seven years,” Mohr says.
On the “Big Head Blues” album Big Head Todd and the Monsters join varying special guests for refreshing takes on classic Johnson fare, including tunes like “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Crossroads Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “All My Love’s In Vain,” and a tune that has become an anthem in the blues world, “Sweet Home Chicago.” The recording features the music of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, as well as luminaries like B.B. King, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, and Hubert Sumlin.
On the tour, Mohr says, “We’re going to structure these shows so that all of the musicians come on with us at the end for a finale. While we normally have a lot of variety and original material in our shows from night to night, this tour will be more structured. There’s only so many great Robert Johnson tunes that we can get to.”
Blues at the Crossroads, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, February 25, 8 p.m. Robert Johnson Centennial with Big Head Todd and the Monsters, David Honeyboy Edwards, the Wood Brothers, Hubert Sumlin, and the duo of Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm. $44 and $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.