When Columbia Records released the box set, Robert Johnson: The Complete
Recordings in 1990, chronicling the life and musical times of the great
Robert Johnson, considered to be one of the most influential blues musicians
ever, it was an unexpected success to say the least.
Who could have
predicted that more than 50 years after his death, Johnson, the legendary
Mississippi Delta bluesman who popularized such blues staples as "Cross Road
Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Come On In My Kitchen" and whose presence
loomed large over the mid-60's British blues explosion of bands like the Cream
and Led Zeppelin, would be a posthumous million-selling artist? What was most
amazing about the set, which has gone on to stake a claim as the best-selling
re-issue of its kind, was that despite the fact that the music inside the box
was riddled with pops and hisses and acres of disturbance that made listening
all the way through difficult for even the biggest fan, it became the hot gift
item of the year, aural faults and all.
Which is why the re-release of a
re-vamped version of the set two weeks ago (November 26), is great news for
blues fans (not to mention fans of the Rolling Stones, Doo Rag, Led Zep, Jane's
Addiction, Pearl Jam, and countless other artists that have been influenced,
either directly or indirectly by Robert Johnson).
Just as the popularity
of the original recordings...
Just as the popularity of the original recordings was a
complete surprise, the unearthing of the more pristine flat transfer tapes of
the material was totally unexpected. According to a source at Columbia, while
searching through Sony's massive environmentally-controlled tape storage
facility called Iron Mountain in upstate New York, Larry Cohn, one of the
producers who worked on the original box set, literally found a secret door,
behind which lay the blues Holy Grail.
"They've been in the process of
re-organizing Iron Mountain for some time and while searching through mountains
of tapes they moved a pile of boxes and they stumbled on a hidden doorway,"
said our source. "Behind the door was a closet and that's where they found
these pristine vinyl pressings of the source material. Larry went back and
listened to the tapes and heard that they were, like, 20 times better than the
ones we used for the original box and was so blown away, we decided we should
re-do the set."
The folks at Columbia wrestled long and hard over the
questionable nature of re-releasing a better version of the wildly-popular set
just six years after they initially offered it, even killing the project for a
while for those very reasons. Our source said there were other factors that
convinced them to go ahead with the rerelease. "In the six years since we
released the set we've developed the 20-bit Super Bit Mapping (SBM) technology
that is so much better than what we had in 1990, so it's the same material, but
it literally sounds twenty times better. This isn't a premeditated thing, it's
sheer dumb luck that we found these things, not some big, bad record company
trying to make more money," our source assured us. The re-issue also allowed
Columbia to shrink the set down to the more manageable and retail-friendly
double-jewel-box format and expand the booklet a bit, with some added rare