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There are two good pieces of news to share about the ongoing restoration of the Warner Bros. building at 508 Park, the historic site of some of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s most famous recordings and the future site of a street culture museum.
A $2.1 million grant from the Moody Foundation puts Encore Park, as the development is being called, at $10 million of its $18 million goal. Meanwhile, the announcement that renowned museum designer Adrian Gardere—who has consulted on the project from the start—will be officially joining Encore Park’s design team bodes well as development gets closer to the finish line.
Read more at D Magazine.
- Encore Park To Host Robert Johnson Blues Revue Featuring Steven Johnson And Guest Guitarist Holland K. Smith – July 27, 2015
- Step Into Dallas’ Historic 508 Park Building – Star-Telegram – March 13, 2015
- First Phase Of Renovation Completed At Building Where Robert Johnson Recorded His Music – October 23, 2014
- New Life For Dallas Building With Robert Johnson In Its Musical History – March 21, 2013
- Church Plans To Renovate Building Where Robert Johnson Recorded His Influential Music – November 28, 2011
Aerial view of Encore Park. Credit: Carol J. Adams
Last year, Bruce Conforth published a report which he claimed provided evidence that debunked the authenticity of the third photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson, which was discovered by Mr. Zeke Schein in 2005. There are dozens of co-producers of this report, none of whom have the credentials to make the assertions outlined in the report. They include musicians, authors, historians, a sociology professor and one forensic psychologist. The forensic psychologist, Ian McKenzie, Ph.D., may arguably have some credibility; I do not know him. I do know that all I have been able to find online about him is that he is a long-time blues enthusiast, a Big Bill Broonzy fanatic and an occasional blues musician.
Another of the “blues experts” who co-produced the report is John Tefteller, a record collector. I do not know Mr. Tefteller personally, but do question his motivation for coproducing the report. Before joining with Conforth to dispute the authenticity of the photograph, Mr. Tefteller attempted to license the photograph from Mr. Schein to use on the cover of his 2009 Blues Calendar. Mr. Schein wisely decided to work with Vanity Fair instead.
Additionally, Conforth references “two of the world’s foremost forensic anthropological labs” as having examined the photograph and cited them as saying “there was not enough data to conclude that the photos were or were not Johnson.” Conforth Report, p. 3. Conforth does not name the labs to which he referred and does not identify the forensic experts who came to this conclusion.
The Johnson Estate did not consult with historians or musicians – it wasn’t writing a book or composing a song. Instead, the Estate sought out and retained Mrs. Lois Gibson, who is identified in the Conforth report as a sketch artist. Conforth fails to mention, however, that Mrs. Gibson literally wrote the book on forensic art (Forensic Art Essentials), that she is also “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist” (The Guinness Book of World Records) and that she is a professor of forensic art at Northwestern University and the Institute of Forensic Art (Houston, TX). Mrs. Gibson is what the law refers to as a forensic expert, which is why she was hired by the Johnson Estate.
With the foregoing in mind, Conforth expects his readers to disregard one of the world’s leading forensic experts and to simply accept his report because he, an American Culture professor, says so. The Johnson Estate stands by the only legally admissible expert evidence produced on this issue.
I do not know Bruce Conforth, nor do I personally know any of the other co-producers of the report. I wish, however, that Conforth had contacted me as he was preparing his report so that he and I could have had a meaningful discussion regarding the claims he was making. That did not happen. In April 2015, before the release of the final report, I was alerted to an online article dated March 12, 2013. The comment section was still open and had been recently active. I read the article and commented on behalf of the Estate. Conforth correctly quotes me in his report, but then takes herculean leaps in his analysis of my response. For example, in his attempt to establish the Johnson family’s “less-than-pure” intentions in authenticating the photograph he states: “[t]his reliance on a process that [Estate attorney John] Kitchens even admitted the estate wanted to succeed (‘I will not pretend that the Estate did not want this photo authenticated’ April 21, 2015) seems questionable.” Conforth Report, p. 3. What would Conforth have expected? Perhaps he would have imagined that my conversation with Mr. Schein would have been more like the following:
Schein: My name is Zeke Schein and I have identified what I believe to be a photograph of Robert Johnson.
Kitchens: I appreciate you calling me about this. I’ll send the photograph to an expert to be examined. I must tell you, though, we sure hope that it’s not Robert Johnson. It would be a nightmare to find out that another photograph of one of the most influential blues and rock musicians of the 20th Century has been discovered. After all, there are already two photographs out there. A third would simply be too many.
Such an approach would have been ludicrous. Yes, the Johnson Estate wanted the photograph to be authenticated. It did not, however, simply rely on Mr. Schein’s belief that the man in the photograph was Johnson. Doing so would have certainly been the easier route. The Estate wanted to know whether the man was Johnson and all of its actions were geared towards acquiring that knowledge.
It was the Estate’s desire that the allegations leveled in Conforth’s report would fade into the background. Unfortunately, that has not happened and, most recently, Conforth was published in the February 2016 edition of Living Blues magazine, a publication to which he is a regular contributor. Because he has not and apparently will not go away, this formal response was required.
In addition to the lack of expert support for his position, there are plenty of holes in Conforth’s report. For example, Conforth cites as “evidence” his argument that Johnson wouldn’t wear or even have available to him the zoot suit he is wearing in the photo discovered by Mr. Schein, especially considering the “very conventional suit [he wore] in the genuine Hooks Brothers’ photo.” Conforth Report, p. 6. Had Conforth called me before publishing his report, I would have told him that Johnson did not buy the “very conventional suit” worn in the Hooks Brothers photo. That suit had belonged to his nephew, Lewis. Lewis gave Johnson the suit just before he (Lewis) was shipped off by the Navy. This information was given to Mr. Stephen LaVere by Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson and testified to under oath by Mr. LaVere during a deposition in 2009. I would have also told Conforth that Johnson’s second-hand suit was tailored by a Jewish man on Beale Street in Memphis; this tailor also made zoot suits. This information was given to me by Annye Anderson, Carrie Thompson’s half-sister, during her deposition in 2009.
Finally, Conforth, when providing his “credentials” at the conclusion of his report, states that he is an Executive Board Member of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation. A similar claim is made at the end of his article in this month’s Living Blues article, except he says he sits on the executive board of the Robert Johnson Foundation (he excludes “blues”). Although the Estate of Robert Johnson and the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation are separate entities, I represent both of them. Bruce Conforth is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the executive board of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
The Robert Johnson Blues Museum is looking for help! The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, managed by the family of Robert Johnson, is seeking to raise funds to remodel the museum in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. The museum honors the life and legacy of Robert Johnson, and serves as one of the sites on the Mississippi Blues Trail for fans to appreciate the area that gave birth to the blues. The museum project was envisioned by Claud Johnson, son of Robert Johnson, and is now being carried out by his sons, following Claud’s passing this year.
Please visit the Robert Johnson Blues Museum GoFundMe page if you would like to contribute to this cause, or please share the GoFundMe page if you would like to have a part in keeping this legacy alive. Thank you for your support.
Dallas Street Choir to Open the Concert and Sing Alongside Johnson
Encore Park, an innovative cultural and social impact campus in Dallas’ historic Harwood District, is hosting the Robert Johnson Blues Revue on August 14 and 15 at its 508 Amphitheater. The public concert on August 15 will feature Robert Johnson’s grandson Steven Johnson and special guest guitarist Holland K. Smith and open with the Dallas Street Choir. The Robert Johnson Revue will also perform on August 14 following a VIP reception at the new amphitheater.
Steven is returning to Dallas to celebrate and perform his grandfather’s music with his band at 508 Park, the exact location where Robert made music and blues history and recorded half of his songs in 1937. Robert Johnson’s only recordings were produced by Don Law and Art Satherley of the American Record Corporation (Brunswick and Vocalion). Johnson died in 1938. His music was rereleased by Columbia Records in 1961 as “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” influencing musicians around the world. Robert Johnson’s music inspired legendary artists like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.
“The band’s sound is Robert Johnson-style blues catered to the 21st Century,” quipped Steven Johnson. “We play ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and all of my granddad’s music with a rhythm he would have played if he’d had a full band.”
The Dallas Street Choir will open for the main act at 8 p.m. on August 15 with four songs. The choir’s final song will be with Steven Johnson. Operating out of The Stewpot, which is located across Park Avenue from the 508 Amphitheater, the Dallas Street Choir is made up of people who are homeless and/or are severely disadvantaged. The choir is led by Jonathan Palant and aims to inspire people and lift the street community up. “Our sound is our own. It focuses on singing with heart and building a community through song,” says Palant. “We use song to forget the stresses of today, come closer together, and have fun.”
General admission tickets for the August 15 concert are $10 and preferred seating tickets are $40. Gates will open at 7:30 and event-goers are invited to bring small coolers. Chairs will be provided. No pets or firearms. Free public secure parking is available in the First Presbyterian Church garage at 408 Park Avenue at the northeast corner of Young Street and Park Avenue. VIP tickets are $75 and include a reception and short show with Steven Johnson and his band on Friday night, August 14th. The VIP ticket will also include admission to the Saturday night concert. Both events will take place at the 508 Amphitheater starting at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here.
About Encore Park
Encore Park, an outreach project of The Stewpot and First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, is an innovative revitalization program of an historic, but long-neglected block in downtown Dallas. Work began with the Church’s purchase of 508 Park and adjacent properties in 2011. With the goal of improving the lives of the homeless and improving downtown Dallas, the cultural social campus currently includes Encore Park’s 508 Amphitheater, Sculpture Wall and Community Garden. Fundraising for Phases II and III to complete the interior of 508 Park’s recording and art studios, rooftop, and Museum of Street Culture; add a teaching kitchen to the Community Garden; and renovate 515 Park is underway. More information at www.encoreparkdallas.org.
Claud L. Johnson of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, passed away on June 30, 2015, at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. He was 83 years old and the only living child of blues legend Robert L. Johnson and Vergie Cain. Mr. Claud lived the majority of his youth with his grandparents, Alex and Elizabeth Smith.
His grandfather, a Baptist preacher, instilled in him the importance of faith, community, hard work and charity. This early influence from his grandfather played a major role in shaping the man he would become. Although he had very little formal education, Mr. Claud was extremely wise and he stayed sharp until his death.
As a young boy, he assisted his grandparents by working in the fields and did yard work for his neighbors. When he was fifteen, he moved with his grandparents to Gulfport, Mississippi, where he got a job unloading trucks. Throughout his career, he worked in a sawmill, a bottling plant, a service station, an electrical power plant and for a cabinet manufacturer. He also owned and operated a barbeque restaurant in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and was an independent truck driver, hauling sand and gravel for Green Brothers Gravel Company in Crystal Springs.
Mr. Claud was not a man of means until later in life, but he still was able to appreciate how greatly he had been blessed. Each year for Christmas, he would buy a lot of fruits and nuts, which he would assemble into gift baskets. He would deliver the baskets throughout the community to the elderly, homebound and needy. A ten-year legal battle resulted in the adjudication of Mr. Claud as the only son of and the sole heir-at-law to the estate of Robert L. Johnson. His legal success did not alter the core values instilled in him by his grandfather. For six months following the first royalty check earned from his father’s estate, he continued to get up each morning to haul gravel. Today, almost two decades later, Mr. Claud’s old gravel truck still sits on his property and in view of his house. That truck was his constant reminder of his humble beginnings and how far he had come.
Even though Mr. Claud’s financial situation had changed, his sense of obligation and duty to those less fortunate did not – the gift baskets at Christmas got bigger and the number of people getting the baskets grew larger. Wanting to have an impact on his community, Mr. Claud established the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, which, in part, aids in continuing the legacy of his father. Through the Foundation, he provided college scholarships, guitars, gifts, advice and opportunities to aspiring young musicians.
As the only son of Robert L. Johnson, Mr. Claud’s story has been featured in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Denver Post and The Los Angeles Times, along with countless other newspapers and magazines, as well as by many television and radio stations.
Mr. Claud was preceded in death by his parents, nine half-siblings, his beloved wife of 59 years, Earnestine, a step-son, Lawrence Ephriam, a step-daughter, Johnnie Mae Beckley and a daughter, Diane Sanders. He leaves to carry on his legacy three half-siblings: Ruby Lynn Moody and Eugene Cain, both of Houston, Texas, and Alfred Cain of New Orleans, Louisiana, a step-son Johnny (Gloria) Ephriam of Detroit, Michigan, one daughter, Teresa (Odell) Guynes, of Crystal Springs, and four sons: Greg (Helen) Johnson of Canton, Mississippi, Elder Steven (Mishelia) Johnson and Michael (Patricia) Johnson, both of Crystal Springs, and Billy (Benita) Bailey of Valdosta, Georgia. Mr. Claud was blessed to have thirteen grandchildren: Lisa, Shell, Nikkitta, Sylvester, Kevin, Janice, Michael, Richard, Bethany, Stephen, Malecia, Adrienne and Shawn, as well as ten great-grandchildren and a host of nieces, nephew, cousins and friends. The family extends special gratitude to a faithful caregiver, Nora Skipper of Crystal Springs and his church family at New Covenant.
Mr. Claud will be greatly missed by all who knew him. He loved the Lord, his family, his church and his friends. He will be remembered as a straight talker who did not compromise his beliefs and who stood strongly by his convictions – if something was on his mind, you would know it; if you got out of line, he didn’t mind telling you.
Pictured: Claud L. Johnson at home in his Robert Johnson room.