BLOG: Is this really Robert Johnson?

Is this really the 'phantom of the blues'?
Is this really the 'phantom of the blues'? (Image credit: Vanity Fair / Claude Johnson)

It's 70 years since delta bluesman Robert Johnson died in 1938, and only two photos of the man have ever been published.

Or is it now three?

In the November 2008 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, a guitar aficionado called Zeke Schein claims to have uncovered a third photograph (pictured right) of Johnson. Schein bought the photo on eBay.

The eBay seller of the photo described the man in the photo as a young BB King, but Schein thought different. He's convinced it is Johnson, and paid $2200 for the battered print. Schein also believes the man to 'Johnson's left is Johnny Shines, another lauded delta blues player.

The 9000 word article in Vanity Fair is a good read, no question, and highlights exactly why Johnson is still important to blues lovers. It also sheds light on the tangled web of Johnson's legal legacy.

Does this matter?

It does matter, as Johnson's music still sells. The Rolling Stones' Love In Vain is a Johnson song. Cream's Crossroads is a Johnson song, and Eric Clapton released Me And Mr Johnson - a whole album of Johnson covers - in 2004.

"The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend." Martin Scorsese

Bottom line, there is still money in the songs that Johnson wrote more than 70 years ago. A third confirmed photograph would undoubtedly spur interest in one of the most shadowy musical legends to have ever existed.

Johnson is the basis of the supposed Faustian pact with the devil that allowed him to become a stunning guitar player in under a year. He died after an alleged poisoning, and the location of his grave is still disputed.

MusicRadar asked its experts about the new photo of the two men.

Guitar Techniques' editor and blues scholar Neville Marten says: "If you'd shown me the photo without knowing the story, I would have said: Is that Robert Johnson?"

MusicRadar's Guitar Editor Chris Vinnicombe adds: "I think it could be real. Possibly just based on the astonishingly large hands."

It's suggested Johnson suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that often results in extremely long fingers and eye disorders. Johnson certainly had extraordinary fingers and a 'lazy' left eye. That's clear from the two already-verified photos (immediately above and below).

But the myth is now possibly overtaking real evidence. As film director Martin Scorsese says: "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."

I agree with Scorsese. The legend is the better story. I still prefer it that way. And I am not personally convinced by this photo, with Johnson playing the guitar. I don't think it's Johnny Shines either.

So again: is this really Robert Johnson?