Big Head Todd’s New Project: a Robert Johnson Tribute

AT THE CROSSROADS: Todd Park Mohr, a.k.a. Big Head Todd, brings the blues legend Robert Johnson back to life

Big Head Todd sitting on hardwood floor struming a vintage guitar at Chicago Music Exchange
Todd Park Mohr strums a vintage guitar at Chicago Music Exchange in Roscoe Village.

 

The first time he heard a Robert Johnson song, Todd Park Mohr was a student at the University of Colorado. It was the mid-1980s, about the time Mohr was assembling his band Big Head Todd and the Monsters. “I wasn’t keen on that sound,” admits Mohr, 45, a Denver native who now lives half of the year in Northfield. “It was only after studying Johnson that I saw the brilliance.”

The most acclaimed of the Delta blues singers, Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs in his brief career, which ended with his mysterious death in 1938 at age 27. His music has become a cornerstone of rock—Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin all have recorded his songs—and, to date, a boxed set of his music has sold more than a million copies.

In February, Mohr and his band pay tribute with the new album 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Ryko/Big Records) and an accompanying concert tour that lands at Symphony Center. In making the album, the band collaborated with a list of revered bluesmen, including B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf’s bassist Hubert Sumlin, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, one of the last people to see Johnson alive.

Sitting in his South Side Chicago bedroom, Edwards recalls August 15, 1938, when he visited Johnson at his Mississippi home. Three nights earlier, the two had played the same juke joint. The club’s owner, with whose wife Johnson was allegedly having an affair, is suspected of poisoning the musician. Johnson’s early and gruesome death helped fuel the legend that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for his virtuosity.

“About 11 o’clock, he was getting sick. He tried to play for a while, then he said, ‘I don’t feel good,’” Edwards remembers. “I went home that Sunday morning, and I thought he’d be all right. Tuesday, I went over to where he lived, and he was crawling around, his stomach all upset, people giving him soda water and different stuff to try to make him heave that stuff up. He died on Wednesday, about ten o’clock in the morning.”

A distinctive, compelling Delta bluesman in his own right, Edwards, now 95, first recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942 and last year received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On 100 Years of Robert Johnson, he provides a murmuring introduction to “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day” and takes center stage on “Sweet Home Chicago,” accompanied only by the harmonica great—and former Chicagoan—Charlie Musselwhite.

Instead of the turbo charged guitars and rhythms of the British blues-rockers, Big Head Todd and the Monsters set the songs to slinky funk grooves, with Mohr playing darting guitar leads and singing in the high-pitched drawl of a grizzled blues elder. “One of the big things about the Delta tradition is the extra beats and extra bars. It’s not straight 12-bar blues, not even ‘Crossroads’ or ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’” he explains. “There’s a lot of rhythmic complexity and changes that happen when you don’t expect them.

“The emotional quality of the lyrics took me by surprise,” he adds. “It’s the relationship stories, the stories of loss, the blues that’s killing me by degrees. The blues isn’t just complaining about life—it’s a reflection of life.”

GO: Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert, Feb. 11th at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-294-3000, cso.org

 

Photograph: Chris Strong

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