American blues singer, songwriter and musician Robert Johnson produced a series of recordings in 1936 and 1937 that owing to the combination of his singing, songwriting and guitar playing influenced generations of musicians. Robert died intestate in 1938 aged 27; his poorly documented life and mysterious death have given rise to many legends – notably that at a local crossroads, in exchange for his soul, the devil bestowed him with the talent required to achieve musical success. He was a progenitor of the Delta Blues and his talent is now widely recognized.
Robert died destitute, but his estate later made millions. A collection of his recordings entitled The Complete Recordings containing every recording known to have been made by Robert won a Grammy Award in 1991 for Best Historical Album, in 1992, the Blues Foundation inducted the album into the Blues Hall of Fame; in 2003 it was selected as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry . The album cover featured one of the two known photos of Robert, sitting cross-legged on a stool wearing a pin-striped suit and a tie and holding his guitar.
The second image shows him in a button-down shirt, staring directly at the lens. A cigarette hangs from his lips and his long fingers rest on a guitar neck
Robert’s half-sister, Carrie Thompson filed as next of kin on Johnson’s small estate in 1974, allowing her to share in all royalties of Johnson’s works, photos, and miscellaneous items concerning Johnson.
In 1983, Carrie died leaving her stepsister Annye to manage her affairs. In 1989, Annye was appointed administrator of both Carrie and Robert’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 generated a considerable amount of revenue to the Robert Johnson estate. After the estate had mushroomed in size from royalties, an individual named Claud L. Johnson came before the court claiming that he was the illegitimate son of Robert L. Johnson.
At first, the courts dismissed Claud’s case on the basis that he did not file his petition within the allotted amount of time; Claud appealed and subsequently, the case was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Court ruled that not hearing Claud’s case would only benefit Annye who, as executor of the Johnson estate, had a fiduciary duty to locate any rightful heirs.
Robert was so unappreciated at the time of his death that no one is even really sure where he is buried. With the Court ruling that it was impossible to get DNA evidence from a body that did not exist.
Claud’s lawyers were able to prove his connection to Robert, through a number of alternate methods including, a deposition sworn by his mother Virgie Jane Smith Cain in 1992 that Robert Johnson had fathered her child; corroborated by her childhood friend, Eula Mae Williams, who testified that she had watched Robert and Virgie have sex in 1931!
In 1998 the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Claud a retired truck driver was Robert’s son and sole heir and was entitled to more than $1 million dollars in music royalties.
The Mississippi Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 2014 that Claud could keep the profits from the only two known photographs of his father.