by Matt Hanks
otterdam, 1975 I flew in on KLM airlines around 11 in the morning,
and when I called over to the hotel, Mick [you know, Jagger] told
me they [you know, the Rolling Stones] were just going to bed.
He said hed call back around 5 or 6 that afternoon. It ended
up being closer to 7 p.m. When I finally did get the call, they
told me to come down to their hotel room. When I got there, one
of their valet guys answered the door. He asked me to come in,
and when I walked in it was just me and the boys. You could tell
it was Keiths room. All the white light bulbs had been replaced
with red ones. There were these weird scarves hanging over all
the lampshades, and, man, there were guitars everywhere. For a
while we just sat around and listened to tapes some Memphis
stuff, some stuff theyd been working on, some stuff Id been
working on with John Entwistle and Nicky Hopkins. We listened
Living a rock-and-roll fantasy: Robert Johnson has jammed with
the likes of the Rolling Stones and Little Milton (above).
Pretty cool, indeed. Just another day in the life of the Worlds Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band, but a day that Robert Johnson will never forget. Whether hed like to or not. Needless to say, Johnsons 1975 audition for the guitar spot that Mick Taylor vacated a year earlier didnt pan out. At 23, he was probably too young to join the then-thirtysomething Stones, and he was definitely too American (the charge eventually fell to Ron Wood, who had him beat on both counts), but he sure didnt lack for experience.
By 1975, young Robert Johnsons life already read like the bluebook for a rock-and-roll fantasy camp. While still attending West Side High School, he became a regular session player at Stax, Sonic, and a host of other Memphis studios. By the ripe old age of 20, he was splitting his time between Memphis and London, and his company between Isaac Hayes and Marc Bolan. He shared an apartment with Ian Anderson, trashed a hotel room with Keith Moon, and, in 1974 among a field of 200 hopefuls secured the lead guitar slot in John Entwistles band Ox.
Sure, luck had a little to do with it; Johnson found himself in the right place at the right time more often than any one person justly should. And hell look you square in the eye and admit that Ive just always had the desire to hang around certain people.
But the kid from West Side High also had the ambition of 10 men and the chops to match. And therein lies the essence of Robert Johnson a rare individual who tempers a fans zeal with a players composure. Its a balance he strikes to this day, juggling music consulting (for several television documentaries, B.B. Kings Blues Club on Beale, and the Hard Rock Cafe, which features some of Johnsons memorabilia on the walls of its Beale Street restaurant, making him the only Memphis-born guitarist represented there) and regular session work (with everyone from ZZ Top to an obscure Swedish band called Eric Von Zipper).
Back to the 70s. After a three-year tenure with Entwistles Ox, Johnson moved back home and began work on what would become his crowning solo achievement the album Close Personal Friend. Newsweek called it one of the late-70s best, if least known, rock-and-roll records. But Close Personal Friend reissued just last month on EMI subsidiary label Bubblehead Records is hardly the brand of rock youd expect from a Stax/Stones affiliate. In the context of 1998s splintered pop landscape, its easy to forget what a shock the album must have been upon initial release. There he was, a guitar player rooted in blues and soul churning out a power-pop gem worthy of a slot on the Stiff records release schedule right between Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. The shift was more than mere trend-spotting.
You have to remember what was on the charts in those days , Johnson explains. You had Saturday Night Fever, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton. There just werent many people in the top-100 playing rock-and-roll [maybe things havent changed so much after all]. The Sex Pistols came along and changed all that. They really floored me.
Again, the fan led, and the player followed.
Johnson toured in support of Close Personal Friend, opening for the Police and the Knack, but bad vibes and bad management, doomed his band and album to a premature fate.
Johnson has retreated to quieter musical confines since then. He recently co-wrote a song for the upcoming Dennis Quaid Bosnian War drama Savior. And hes enjoying the monthly royalty checks for the use of another of his songs, The Countrys Rocking, in the current production of Sesame Street Live. And though he recently struck out on a publicity tour for the Close Personal Friend re-release most of these promotional efforts have been focused in Europe, where this July VH-1 will broadcast a live concert featuring Johnson and his bandmates from the album, fellow Memphians Blair Cunningham and David Cochran Johnson seems most content pursuing his hobby of collecting and restoring old Midtown homes. But dont be fooled; this rock-and-roll refugee can still bend your ear with the best of them. n
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