The first bit of a Robert Johnson song I ever heard, I once theorized, was the short excerpt of “Come On In My Kitchen” that started off “49 Bye-Byes” on the album Crosby, Stills & Nash. I can’t put a specific date on when I heard it, but I know I got the album in early May of 1971.
Nor, it turns out, can I put a precise date to the first time I heard one of Johnson’s song performed in its entirety. I do, however, remember the circumstances. It was a Friday in the spring of 1972, almost certainly April. I headed out for some record shopping that evening, no doubt beginning at Axis, the store on St. Germain – St. Cloud’s main street – that stocked a good selection of new and used LPs as well as leather coats, hats and other goods. I went pretty quickly to the used records.
It should be remembered that in the spring of 1972, I was still catching up on about eight years of pop and rock history. I’d listened pretty consistently to Top 40 music during my last two years of high school, and had caught up then on some things I’d missed. I’d spent a good deal of my first year of college hanging around the campus radio station, and now I was digging into albums, trying again to catch up at least a little, this time with my radio station colleagues and my buddies in the dorms.
And in the bins at Axis, I found a record with a strange cover: It showed a flat landscape, and in the foreground there was a leaping, grinning man dressed in white, a guitar in each hand and an absurd Uncle Sam hat topping things off. To his right was a donkey laden with a drum set and another guitar. The record was, of course, ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’, subtitled The Rolling Stones in concert.
Well. I knew of the Rolling Stones, of course. Like the Beatles, the Supremes and a few other performers and groups, they’d been an inescapable portion of the musical landscape through the years when my peers listened to Top 40 and I had my ears still tuned elsewhere. I might not have known the names of all the Stones’ hits from the years before I began listening, but I knew the records. And I knew “Honky Tonk Women,” the single that had been No. 1 for the first four weeks of my tenure as a football manager during my junior year of high school.
Intrigued, I turned the record over and scanned the titles. There was “Honky Tonk Women” on the second side. Other than that, I sheepishly admit, I recognized only one title: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But I didn’t know the Stones’ version well. My best knowledge of the song came through Leon Russell’s performance of it during the Concert for Bangladesh; I’d gotten that box set for Christmas. Given those two bits of familiarity – and my knowledge that the Rolling Stones were important and thus it was important for me to know more about them – I took the record to the counter. The price tag is still on the front of the record, some thirty-eight years later. I paid $1.99 for it.
Anxious to show off my find to a buddy or two, I stopped at St. Cloud State’s Stearns Hall on my way home. I found my pal Dave and his girlfriend hanging around in his room, and they chuckled when they saw “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” listed on the back; I’d made no secret of my admiration for Leon Russell’s performance. Dave cued up the record, and we listened to that track, the first on the record. After that, as it was obvious I’d interrupted something that Dave and his girl wanted to resume, I took my record and headed home.
And in the basement rec room, I cued up the record once again and listened to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol” and “Stray Cat Blues.” I was pleased but puzzled. This wasn’t the Rolling Stones that I remembered from the radio. Keep in mind, first, that I only vaguely recalled the Stones’ studio version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and that I’d not heard the album tracks from Beggar’s Banquet. Secondly, since no singles from it had reached the Top 40, I’d likely never heard anything from Let It Bleed. And there was no way that “Honky Tonk Women” – the only Stones’ song I knew at all well – could have prepared me for this earthy and bluesy music.
Then came the introduction to “Love In Vain.” And I heard an entire Robert Johnson song for the first time. I stared at the floor as Mick Jagger bit off the desolate words and I stared at the stereo across the room as Mick Taylor took his slide solo, and then I heard Jagger sing about the blue light and the red light, all of it pulling me along into the blues.
I didn’t stay there long that time; I was eighteen. In later years, of course, I’d delve deeply into the blues and wander through all the genres, including blues rock. Much of that later exploration opened another world to me – especially the larger-than-life work of Howlin’ Wolf – but I’m not sure I’ve ever been pulled into a song as deeply as I was that evening when I heard “Love In Vain” for the first time.
(I should note that when I first heard the Stones’ live version of “Love In Vain,” it wasn’t listed as a Robert Johnson composition; the album credits said the song was “Traditional arr. Jagger/Richard.” I’m not sure when the songwriting credit was changed – I’d guess the early 1990s – but the 2002 reissue of the CD credits the song to Johnson.)
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 33
“Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White from Black and White 
“Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones from ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’ 
“Love Train” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3524 
“December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons, Warner/Curb 8168 
“Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town 
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House from Crowded House 
Talk about another world! The swamp rock of Tony Joe White was unlike pretty much anything else in the Top 40 during the last weeks of August 1969, when “Polk Salad Annie” went to No. 8. (Creedence Clearwater Revival had two songs in the Top 40, but I think Tony Joe came from a little deeper in the swamp.) The bluesy tale of the gal whose mama was workin’ on a chain gang intrigued me whenever I heard it coming out of the radio speakers, especially White’s growled introduction and his spoken interjections. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it: I never bought the single, and I didn’t get the album that was home to the single – Black and White – until sometime in the 1990s. But I still love the record. “Polk Salad Annie” brought White his only hit, although he continues to perform and record; his most recent album, The Shine, came out earlier this year.
When the O’Jays called us out to the station in 1972, I’m not sure that anyone who heard the infectious “Love Train” didn’t want to get on board. As I detailed the other day when I wrote about “Back Stabbers,” the group had seen singles move into the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart for years before Top 40 success arrived. And arrive it did: “Love Train” went to No. 1, and was No. 1 for four weeks on the R&B chart as well. The group would hit the Top 40 seven more times before the string of hits ended in 1980. (The hits on the R&B and related charts continued, and as recently as 2004, the O’Jays had a track – “Make Up” – get to No. 74 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.)
I was sitting at The Table at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center in early 1976 when the 4 Season’s “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” came on the jukebox. My friend Stu shook his head. “Man,” he said, “what a great bass line. One of the best ever.” I took that judgment under advisement, and over the years, I’ve polished it to the point where I credit the 4 Seasons’ hit – it was No. 1 for three weeks – with having the best pop music bass line ever. And it is the bass line that moves the song along as it tells its tale of a one-night stand. The 4 Seasons had thirty Top 40 hits between 1962 and 1976 (with a dance remix of “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” going to No. 14 in 1994 for a thirty-first hit). But “December 1963” is the only one that does anything at all for me.
“Badlands” was the first Bruce Springsteen song I recall hearing. As I’ve noted before, I was aware of the hoopla surrounding Born To Run when it came out in 1975, but I don’t recall ever hearing the title track on the radio (which is odd, as it went to No. 23). I suppose I heard it but didn’t pay much attention. But I do remember hearing “Badlands” one day when I was working for the Monticello newspaper. My boss had a new Suburban, which we used to bring the 3,000 or so copies of each weekly edition back from the printer in a town ten miles away. One Wednesday during the summer of 1978, it was my job to drive to Buffalo, put the final touches on the newspaper and then bring back the finished product. One of the benefits of driving the Suburban was the FM radio, something my vehicle did not have. So after I started the Suburban, I tuned it to KQRS, an album-rock station in the Twin Cities, and the first thing I heard was Max Weinberg’s brief drum riff and then – I had the volume turned up high – the crash of “Badlands,” with its stinging, octave-jumping guitar riff and Clarence Clemons’ own defiant solo. Over the years, because of that moment and because of its musical and lyrical toughness, “Badlands” has remained one of my favorite Springsteen songs. It just missed the Top 40, peaking at No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100, but it deserved better, if for no other reason than the line: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
We’d had a spat one day, the Texas Gal and I. It was the summer of 2000: She was still living and working in the Dallas area, and I was living in my apartment on Minneapolis’ Bossen Terrace, a half-block from the international airport. I don’t recall what the argument was about, but troubled, I tried to think of a way to apologize without interrupting her during a busy afternoon. I wasn’t quite certain she wanted to talk to me at the moment, anyway. As I sat at my computer, my RealPlayer settled on a Crowded House tune, one that I liked a fair amount. It had been a No. 2 hit in early 1987, but I recalled it from my second year in Minot; one of the young women who edited the Minot State yearbook brought mixtapes in for the yearbook production sessions, and the sounds of those mixtapes came unavoidably through my door into my office. Happily, I’d liked most of the tunes I’d thus heard, including the Crowded House record that was now playing. As the song went on and I worried about how the Texas Gal felt after our argument, I opened my Yahoo! messenger and changed my status to: “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I knew that the program – which she also had on her computer at work – would alert her to my change of status. A few moments later, I got an alert that her status had also changed. I don’t recall the exact wording – and neither does she – but her message was reassuring. And since that day, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – a beautifully written, performed and produced piece of pop music – has been one of our favorite songs.