ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons Talks Lasting Influence of Blues Legend Robert Johnson
When the first reissue of Robert Johnson recordings -- a compilation titled 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' -- first arrived in 1961, it changed the face of popular music forever. "Everybody stopped in their tracks," ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons says of the reaction to the songs by Johnson, who is now considered a blues legend but at the time had largely been forgotten after his mysterious death in 1938.
Johnson's music since has been covered by -- and has had a major influence on -- everyone from Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. "But as many times as a Robert Johnson number has been covered and rerecorded and reinterpreted, no one has yet recaptured what guitar players would refer to as that internal DNA of Robert Johnson," Gibbons continues. "You can get the same guitar, you can probably go back to the same hotel room, but delivering it like R.J. did in 1936 — forget about it. It's not going to happen."
Robert Johnson's first recording session took place on Nov. 23, 1936 -- or 75 years ago this week. And, according to Gibbons, the one thing that sticks out most is what Johnson was able to accomplish on his own, without any accompaniment from other guitars, bass or drums. "This was just one guy, " he says. "Meat on metal on wood. But what he came with was fierce."
In the end, Gibbons says that Johnson's influence, which can even be felt on cuts like the ZZ Top hit 'La Grange,' stems from how innovative the guitarist was. "He had mastered a way of playing that went far beyond what anyone else was doing in the Delta at that time," Gibbons says. "It was downright befuddling."