Robert Johnson's "The Complete Recordings," issued in 1990 by Columbia/Legacy, is one of the most popular blues collections ever released, and is undoubtedly the biggest-selling album ever by a pre-World War II bluesman. The compilation of works by the late, legendary singer-guitarist -- originally released in two LP volumes, in 1961 and 1970 -- has been certified platinum.
A story published Thursday in the U.K. paper the Guardian now maintains that Johnson's dark, much-cherished blues have been reproduced for years at the wrong speed. Writer Jon Wilde claims in the piece that, based on examination of Johnson's guitar tunings, "the common consensus among musicologists is that we've been listening to Johnson at least 20% too fast." Wilde also supplies a link to a British site that offers a CD, "Steady Rollin' Man," containing speed-corrected versions of 24 Johnson performances.
The story revives a debate that has been cycling in the blues community for years, and Lawrence Cohn -- the former Sony exec who won a Grammy with co-producer Steve LaVere in 1991 for the Legacy package -- is plainly weary of the issue. "It's the kind of thing that could go on forever," Cohn tells SoundCheck. "It's an endless argument."
Cohn acknowledges there's a possibility Johnson's 1936-37 recordings were speeded up, since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was "notorious" for altering the speed of its releases. "Sometimes it was 78 rpms, sometimes it was 81 rpms," he says. It's impossible to check the original sources, since the metal stampers used to duplicate the original 78 discs disappeared years ago.
However, he adds, "I think what I did was fairly close to the way things were recorded...What I did sounded true to me."
Those interested in hearing the speeded-up renderings of Johnson's songs are advised that the English disc is almost certainly a bootleg -- Cohn says that Sony has never licensed the material to any other label.
A Legacy spokesman could not be reached for comment.• Click here for the SoundCheck homepage
• Get more music news at Variety.com
• Follow Us: Twitter - Facebook