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Robert L. Johnson Bluesman's Estate Finally Settles 62 Years After Death

Robert L. Johnson, a lonely musician who defined the '30s blues era, died in 1938 at the young age of 27.

Despite the fact that he died penniless, his estate subsequently made thousands in royalties, prompting an estate dispute and lengthy probate that would not be settled until 62 years after his death.

An Estate in Turmoil

Like many of his time, Johnson died precariously, with no children and without a will. Carrie Thompson, Robert Johnson's half sister, filed as next of kin on Johnson's small estate in 1974. Carrie's petition of the court allowed her to share in all royalties of Johnson's works, photos, and miscellaneous items concerning Johnson.

In 1983, Carrie died leaving her stepsister Annye (of no relation to Robert) to manage her affairs. In 1989, the courts officially appointed Annye the administrator of both Carrie's and R.L. Johnson's estates.

At the time, the court noted that Johnson's estate consisted of "miscellaneous and unknown" items. However, everything changed the very next year when Columbia Records released "Robert L. Johnson - The Complete Recordings."

The 1990 album release was a smash, and generated a considerable amount of revenue to the Robert Johnson estate. After the estate had mushroomed in size from royalties, an individual named Claude L. Johnson came before the court claiming that he was the illegitimate son of Robert L. Johnson.

At first, the courts threw his case out on the basis that Johnson did not file his petition within the allotted amount of time. The case was then appealed, and subsequently overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that not hearing Claude's case would only benefit Annye who, as executor of the Johnson estate, maintained a fiduciary duty to locate any rightful heirs. Through the following years of legal wrangling, the saga of Robert L. Johnson eventually unfolded.

Background of a Bluesman

Robert L. Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on May 11, 1911. He was the son of Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson, a lover she had taken in her husband's absence.

Johnson was described as a wandering man, in both his music and his life. After leaving his home in Memphis to go back to Mississippi, he took many girlfriends, but finally settled down and married a teenager named Virginia. In April of 1930, Virginia died at the youthful age of 16 while in childbirth with their son, who also perished during the delivery.

After their deaths, Johnson focused his energy on perfecting his music. He traveled all about Mississippi with legendary musicians such as Charlie Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown.

R.L. Johnson later returned to his birthplace of Hazlehurst, Mississippi in search of a steady life. Around this time, Johnson had an affair with Miss Virginia Smith, the mother of Claude Johnson. They met in March of 1931, and after their brief encounter, never spoke again.

Smith identified Robert Johnson in a 1992 deposition as the father of her son Claude, which would later be corroborated by one of her childhood friends. After Virginia's fling with the bluesman, Claude Johnson was born nine months later.

Immediately after his encounter with Smith, R.L. Johnson courted a woman named Callie Craft, and two months later they were wed. Within weeks, Johnson packed up his new wife and her kids and moved to the Delta of Southern Mississippi. Their move was a secret to everyone, including Callie's family.

While residing in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Johnson's career was in full stride. The musician was more popular than ever, and was constantly away from home. The demands of their marriage became too much, and Callie fell ill.

Many blues historians believe the strain of keeping up with her untamed husband got the best of her. Shortly, R.L. Johnson left her to be on the road again, and Callie died a few years later.

In 1936, Ernie Oertel of the American Record Company contracted Robert Johnson to go to San Antonio, Texas to record his first record. His most famous song, "Terraplane Blues," was recorded during his San Antonio studio sessions.

To promote his new record, Johnson hit the road with two men named Johnny Shine and Sonny Boy to play gigs at juke joints around St. Louis, Detroit, and New York. Their dizzying tour around the country eventually led them right back to the Delta.

One Bad Bottle of Whiskey

In the heat of August 1938, Johnson and Sonny played a gig in Greenwood, Mississippi. After their set was through, Johnson took a drink from an open bottle of whiskey, against Sonny Boy's advice. Johnson immediately fell ill.

An investigation ensued, and police determined the bottle was poisoned with strychnine. A jealous husband was long believed to be the culprit, but no charges were ever filed.

Although Johnson survived the poisoning, he would later contract pneumonia. And on August 16, 1938, one of the great legends of blues passed away.

Mystery always shrouded Johnson's death. The official death certificate listed the exact cause of death as "no doctor". There was no information on when or where he was buried. And even to this day, the exact whereabouts of Johnson's grave is unknown. Quoting one of Johnson's songs, Supreme Court Justice Mike Mills suggested the musician was "buried down by the highway so his old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride".

Four years ago, blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow made headlines when he uncovered new details surrounding Johnson's demise from the Mississippi Department of Health. The Department's files contained information suggesting that Johnson had actually died from a combination of pneumonia and syphilis.

The syphilis claim raised doubts in court that Claude Johnson could have been Johnson's next of kin, since syphilis often causes infertility. However, that argument was thrown out, eventually setting up the foundation to Claude Johnson's claim.

Resolution is Sweet

After Claude filed the paternity case in 1992, his struggle to be recognized by the court dragged on for eight long years. And over the years, Robert L. Johnson's estate seemed to resemble a baton at a relay race, changing hands many times before reaching the finish.

A whopping 62 years after his death, the legendary musician's estate has finally been probated. The Mississippi state courts recognized Claude Johnson as the sole legal heir of Robert L. Johnson. One man can now put this struggle behind him, and celebrate the musical legacy of his father.

Probate can delay the estates of both rich and poor. As the Johnson saga illustrates, prior planning can avoid many headaches for your family.

Learn more about how you can ensure your family is provided for, and contact our estate experts today!






An Estate in Turmoil 
Background of a Bluesman 
One Bad Bottle of Whiskey 
Resolution is Sweet 

















Johnson's hit album in the early 1990's brought new royalties to the Johnson estate.















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Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers was first published in 1961, and re-released in 1998.



















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