THANK YOU, MR. JOHNSON
|One of the display cases in the lobby of the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the site of Robert Johnson's|
historic recordings in 1936.
In November 1936, Robert Johnson recorded 16 songs in Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel. If you don’t know this man, you don’t know the blues ... or rock and roll, for that matter. A member of the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Johnson has been the inspiration for musicians such as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of entering Room 414. I wanted to feel something special ... something spiritual. I didn’t expect to see an apparition, but I was hoping for some kind of sign.
The room itself was fairly ordinary. These days it’s set up like a living/dining area, available as a suite for the rooms on either side. I walked around the room, standing at various points and trying to figure out where Johnson would have sat and leaned into the microphone.
I brought along my CD, “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers,” and tried to match up the painting on the cover with some point in the room. It didn’t work. Obviously the artist drew a romanticized version of what transpired at the Gunter, probably decades after the recordings.
So while the nicely appointed room was very comfortable, there was nothing about it that spoke of Johnson ... not until I looked out the windows and down onto Houston Street.
|The view of the Brady Building from Room 414. I wonder if the people who work there and look at these windows|
every day realize the historical significance of what happened there in November 1936.
|A view of the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, at the corner of Houston and St. Mary's in downtown|
San Antonio. Room 414 is the corner suite, just above the Sheraton sign.
Surely, Johnson stood where I did, gazing at the marquee of the Majestic Theater, knowing he wasn’t welcome there. Perhaps he gazed across at the offices in the Brady Building, or down at the street below where Packards, Nashes and Studebakers rolled by.
The windows are locked now, but probably weren’t back then. Did he lean out and breathe in the sights and sounds, or did he think better of the situation and not want to call attention to himself -- a black man in a white hotel in 1936, in the South no less?
But still I asked myself: Where was the magic? Where was my sign?
In November 2011, there’s a big crowd at Sam’s Burger Joint and Music Hall. It promises to be an awesome evening of music -- the San Antonio Blues Society’s Annual Robert Johnson SA Sessions.
|Jonn Del Toro Richardson|
The opening act of Rich DelGrosso and Jonn Del Toro Richardson set the tone for the evening. With Rich on mandolin and Jonn on guitar, the duo from Houston are masters at their craft. Despite a case of laryngitis, Rich powered through his vocals, gamely taking a ribbing from Jonn who accused him of sounding like Peter Brady.
The duo is also heavily involved with the Blues in the Schools program, and shared several stories of their classroom adventures, including a trip to Colombia. Obviously, the blues don’t have borders.
And then it was time for the headliner -- Rory Block. Here’s a woman who met Son House -- the man who taught Robert Johnson how to play the guitar -- and he was so impressed with her skills he asked, “Who taught her how to play like this?”
And she was 16 years old ...
Rory is so good at what she does, she has earned the respect and admiration of Johnson’s family. Grandson Steven has said “Rory Block should have a doctorate in my grandfather’s music.” Great-grandson Richard stands behind her on the CD cover for “The Lady and Mr. Johnson.” Dressed in 1930s garb, he looks amazingly like his great-grandfather.
Several times during the evening, I made a point of closing my eyes and focusing solely on the music. In some ways, I felt transported to Room 414, but not the one of a few weeks ago ... the one of 75 years ago.
And that’s when I realize ... that’s my sign. The magic isn’t in the room ... it’s in the music.
GROOVY NOTE: I’d like to thank the Sheraton Gunter Hotel for their gracious hospitality in allowing me to shoot photos in Room 414, and for becoming a corporate partner of the San Antonio Blues Society.
|Rory Block with Steve Schnipper, treasurer of the San Antonio Blues Society|