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Bluesman's Son Gets His Due

Claud Johnson is finally enjoying the fruits of the legendary Robert Johnson's estate, and taking stock of a father he never knew.

June 02, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Miss. — Inside the pink brick estate he built with a blues fortune, 72-year-old Claud Johnson cannot shake the habits he formed when he was a poor man.

Three years after moving in, he still has more rooms than he has furniture. Creamy wall-to-wall stretches across the second floor, which is mostly empty. To tell the truth, he's not sure if his wife, Miss Ernestine, has ever gone up there.

He keeps his finicky 25-year-old Mack gravel truck parked nearby, where he can keep an eye on it through the living room window. He drove the truck, by his own estimate, one and a quarter million miles. Even as plants poke up around its chassis, it seems the truck -- not the blues or the house -- is the thing that matters to him.

After Claud won his court battle in 1998 and was recognized as the son of blues music legend Robert Johnson, his lawyer handed him a six-figure cashier's check and begged him to quit hauling gravel. Claud kept hauling gravel for five months.

"After 29 years, it just gets in your blood," said Claud, whose smile reveals glinting gold dental work. "I wake up some mornings, I want to get on that truck."

Late in life, surrounded by the wealth of a stranger, Claud has begun to consider a parent he never knew.

Robert Johnson was a blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. Disgusted with fieldwork, he left his sharecropping family around 1930 and took to the highway, recording, in his unearthly voice, 29 songs.

Johnson's music was so good, other men said, that his talent could not be natural: Delta legend has it that one day at a backcountry crossroad, Johnson waited for the devil to come by. After that, Johnson could play any song he wanted, but he had surrendered his soul.

Johnson was just 27 when he died in August 1938 -- poisoned, most people believe, by a jealous husband in a Greenwood, Miss., juke joint. He was so poor and unloved, it is said, that his body was dumped into the ground without a coffin, and to this day, no one is entirely sure where he's buried. But the brooding songs he wrote and recorded have been discovered and rediscovered by the generations that came after him.

People in Greenwood have become accustomed to the Japanese tourists who come looking for Johnson's grave. Just this year, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eric Clapton released "Me and Mr. Johnson," a CD devoted entirely to Johnson's blues.

In the midst of all this celebrity is Claud Johnson, who did not know until he was almost 40 that his father had recorded music.

Claud is that rare thing, said blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow: an ordinary man who was drawn into a legend.

"He's just a little old country boy from Crystal Springs, Miss.," said Wardlow. "It's almost like, I guess, one of those Shakespearean things. He got pulled into it, totally."

Since 1974, Robert Johnson's songbook had been in the hands of a California record producer and blues archivist, Stephen LaVere, who sought out the musician's half-sister, Carrie Thompson, and promised to split the profits evenly.

Over the next decade, that bargain dissolved into a catfight. LaVere was pressuring bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to pay to use the music. Thompson, meanwhile, had turned against LaVere, and attempted to sever the contract.

Then, in 1990, Sony put out a boxed set of Johnson's music, expecting it to appeal to a narrow audience of blues connoisseurs. It won a Grammy and sold more than 500,000 copies.

When word got out that Robert Johnson's estate could be worth millions, putative heirs appeared by the dozen.

Willis Brumfield, the estate's executor, began getting calls at odd hours from people who claimed they were Johnson's long-lost twin brother or daughter, he said.

"They had some idea it was a fortune of money," Brumfield said, "and it was."

Out of this cacophony emerged Claud Johnson.

A few people already knew who he was. In 1970, a Texas cultural historian named Mack McCormick had traveled to Crystal Springs to search for Robert Johnson's relatives, and found himself face to face with a twinkly old woman, who, he recalls, "just burbled over. She said, 'My boy is his baby.' " Blues buffs passed the information among themselves -- a son! But Claud continued with his quiet life.

The estate eventually grew to $1.3 million. But Robert Johnson's executors found that they had no clearly established heir. Thompson, the half-sister, had died in 1983, and her half-sister and son were still wrangling with LaVere over the licensing rights. LaVere recalled mentioning Claud to the executors.

Not long after that, Claud received a summons in the heirship case. "I didn't know what to do with the letter," Claud said. He decided to hire a lawyer.

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