Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs on a total of 41 tracks in two recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas in November 1936 and Dallas, Texas in June 1937. Most of the songs were recorded twice. Notable among these tracks were "Sweet Home Chicago", "Crossroads Blues", "Terraplane Blues" and "Preaching the Blues", all frequently remade and imitated by other artists.
He died on August 16th, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi after falling ill three days earlier, allegedly as a result of drinking poisoned whiskey. It is claimed that his killer was the husband of a woman with whom Robert Johnson was having an affair. No arrest was ever made, and his death certificate simply says "No doctor" under cause of death.
Although frequently cited as "the greatest blues singer of all time" and even the most important musician of the twentieth century, many listeners are disappointed by their first encounter with his work, simply because of its age and unfamiliarity. Exaggerated claims are sometimes made for Johnson's originality: he certainly did not invent the blues, which had existed on record for over fifteen years before he recorded. Johnson's importance lies in his recasting of earlier traditions into something new and better. His primary influence was Son House, who more than anyone else can claim to have invented the Delta blues, with his rough voice and searing slide guitar riffs. But Johnson added to this the keening whimsy of Skip James, and the jazzy inventiveness of Lonnie Johnson; indeed, a couple of his songs are nothing other than imitations of his famous namesake. Johnson had also listened to Leroy Carr, at that time probably the most popular blues singer, although hardly ever played today, as well as the more obscure Peetie Wheatstraw.
What Johnson did with these and other diverse influences was create a new sound that was at once immediate and artful. His use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago", while his penchant for strange snatches of melodic invention on the upper strings, mingling with a quite different vocal line, appears on "Walking Blues". Johnson played with the young Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II (who claimed to be present at the fateful night when Johnson was poisoned, and even warned him against taking an open bottle of whiskey!). He also acted as mentor to Elmore James, and inspired the young Muddy Waters to take up the blues. All of these musicians and others who created the Chicago style of electric blues in the 1950s were, essentially, playing the music of Robert Johnson, plugged in. There is thus a direct line of influence from the early blues to post-war blues to early rock and roll and later rock music, and Robert Johnson is the pivot around which it all turns.
Years after his death, his fan club grew to include rock stars such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as well as Eric Clapton. A recurring legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. The legend was told mainly by Son House, but finds no corroboration in any of Johnson's work - despite titles like "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhound on my Trail". His contemporary Tommy Johnson, by contrast, actually claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil.