Business lessons from Robert Johnson

guitar Today we discuss the man hailed as "the king of the Delta blues," "the James Dean of blues," and "the most important blues singer that ever lived."

That would be Robert Johnson, who died at the tender age of 27 in 1938. His music—after being popularized in 1961 with a reissue of his recordings—is now considered the foundation of blues and rock, having inspired such musical luminaries as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Bob Dylan.

On the subject of Robert Johnson so little is known but so much has been written. And, at the time of his life, so little was achieved by a man of so much talent. But fortunately his musical influence is heard everywhere these days—especially in blues.

But we’ll focus today on some business lessons, because, well, that’s what we do here. There are at least four things you can learn from Johnson’s brief career that you might apply to yourself, your company, or your products and services.

  • Establish a compelling narrative and run with it. The story surrounding Robert Johnson (which he didn’t create but didn’t discourage) was as crazy as it gets. Yet people bought it.

    At a Mississippi crossroads Johnson purportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for gaining guitar mastery. (The devil actually tuned RJ's guitar for him, as the legend goes. For a beginning guitar student, that alone might be a fair swap for one’s soul.)

    Famed bluesman Son House may have started the myth by commenting on the astonishing improvement he’d seen in Johnson’s guitar-playing between the two times he’d seen him play, which prompted the obvious conclusion that RJ had received a guitar tutorial from Mephistopheles. (Perhaps one of many reasons that rock has come to be known as "the devil’s music.")

    Anyway, the story stuck—and many still believe it 85 years later. In your case, see if you can create an exciting narrative without the Satanic overtones.

  • Generate something totally new from existing elements. RJ took old country blues themes (music and lyrics) that had been around for years and fashioned them into something unique and extraordinary.

    Oded Shenkar, in his book Copycats, points to something similar (mentioned here) when he refers to Apple as an expert at “assembly imitation” that “reserves its creativity for the novel recombination of existing technologies.” Innovation according to Apple and Robert Johnson is a synthesis of a lot of other people's ideas and concepts, with one’s own stamp on it.

    As Vanity Fair pointed out, “Every guitar lick, vocal technique, or lyrical flourish that [Johnson] borrows or steals he makes his own.”

  • Be flexible and adaptive in your customer service. Though he had dazzling blues compositions of his own, Johnson was agile enough to play in a variety of styles depending on what the audience wanted—including jazz, pop, and hillbilly standards.

    Imagine a Delta blues virtuoso of Johnson’s caliber playing schmaltzy pop songs on the street corners of Greenwood, Mississippi with a hat turned upside down for tips and with a big smile on his face? That takes humility—and street smarts.

    He kept his audience happy, which kept him fed, while he further developed his own practice.

  • Go out with a bang, while you’re on top of your game. Johnson’s career ended while he was still hot. (It was tragic for RJ to lose his life at a young age of course, but it was great for his legacy that he made a sudden departure after recording such memorable music.)

    Rock bands are famous for pulling the plug while they’re on top: Beatles, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, Police, and Nirvana, to name a few. RJ wasn’t a star when he died, but he was burning more brightly than ever before, with a local hit, “Terraplane Blues.” Maybe on some level he knew he had made his mark.

    At any rate, it’s my minority opinion that businesses exist to make a difference—not to perpetuate themselves—and when that difference is made, move on! Often a sudden exit—and sometimes explosive events surrounding the exit—add to the narrative about the individual or organization and bring more attention to the cause.

We should add that RJ also kept to the rule of every bluesman I’ve known: never live beyond the means of your girlfriend. It turned out Johnson had multiple partners—who didn’t know of each other—whom he was living with in different towns. (He also fathered children by at least three women, two of whom he married but who died of childbirth.)

But he apparently paid the ultimate price for his infidelities, because rumor has it that he was poisoned to death by a jealous boyfriend. Perhaps that’s another business lesson? If you have enemies jealous of your success, put someone on the payroll as a food sampler.

Ok, if you’re still wondering what the big deal is with this dude and why we should care, consider the following. Johnson was rated #1 by Spin Magazine in its "Guitar Gods" listing and #5 by Rolling Stone in its "100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke's Picks."

Every rock and blues guitar maestro I know puts RJ on a very short list of the best players and singers.

  • Clapton, after first hearing his records, went so far as to say, “I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.”
  • Richards, when he first heard Johnson’s solo recordings, was sure it was two guys playing guitar.
  • And Dylan was so captivated by Johnson’s songs that he said if he hadn’t heard them, “there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down—that I wouldn’t have felt free or upraised enough to write.”

To read more about Johnson and hear samples of his tunes, go to Russ & Gary’s “The Best Years of Music.”

As a footnote to the above—and to add even more superstition to his ever-growing mythology—Robert Johnson was a founding member of the 27 Club, the group of uber-talented blues or rock artists who died at the age of 27. A short sample includes: Brian Jones, Al Wilson (Canned Heat), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pigpen McKernan (Grateful Dead), Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Of course I don’t personally believe in superstition, because that brings bad luck.

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  1. Quit while you're winning. Or perhaps, change while you're winning.

    Big lesson I learned from Charles Handy's The Empty Raincoat about the sigmoid curve of change: once you climb to a certain point, you can leap to a new curve, or drop off the backside to start again.

    The curve is inevitable. Rebirth will happen. Better to choose it while your game is hot than to have it thrust upon you after you peak.

    And now I'm off to tune my Seagull to open D and slide me some slide, and think about RJ and how many multiples of 27 I am.

    1. We both should be worried about that 54 benchmark, eh? I've giving guitar lessons to friends and family in open D tuning (which means tuned to a D major chord to those who don't know guitarspeak) and I'm amazed how quickly beginners can learn guitar that way. A 12-year old girl I've been teaching for a few months can already play Joni Mitchell songs in open tuning and a lot of rock stuff. I'll get her hooked on slide next! If I keep this up I may have to give up consulting. :-)

      Speaking of which, that sigmoid curve of change is way simpler than how I talk about it. Thanks.

        1. Actually, at 92 I'm a bit of a biological anomaly. But, kidding aside, I'm worried if I'll survive that 108th year.

    1. Yeah, that RS poll had Johnson at #71. Astonishing at first glance, especially because it was determined by a poll of famous rock guitarists. But when I looked further I realized that they were asked to list their FAVORITE guitarists. Hell, my favorite guitarists (lead and rhythm) are ones I've played in bands with for years whom nobody has heard of, but who stack up well against the greats.

  2. Being adaptive in your customer service is a big one. Apple seems to get it on that score. The folks at the Genius Bar have helped me with issues that had little to do with their products.

    I like the idea of paying someone to sample my food. The cafeteria fare is so nasty where I work that from now on I'm going to get underlings to taste it before I eat it.

    1. Yeah, it's still a radical notion: provide MORE service than the customer is expecting.

      I would pay people to safety-test what I eat, but—given that I'm the one cooking it—no one is willing to put their life on the line.

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