A New York tribute to Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson to be held on Tuesday–featuring an eclectic bunch of musicians ranging from rappers to an R&B star–had a nearly two-decade-old gestation period. Veteran actor and director Joe Morton sought the backing of Columbia Records for a play about Johnson in the early 1990s. Steve Berkowitz, a music executive who then oversaw Columbia’s legacy recordings, was keenly interested, but the deal ultimately fell through. Around May 8, 2011 — the centenary of the birth of Johnson — Messrs. Morton and Berkowitz, who are co-producing the show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, began discussing a tribute concert.
The duo and two other co-producers — Patricia Watts, a Broadway producer, and Michael Dorf, the owner of New York music venue City Winery —began calling artists. One by one they signed up acts like the Roots and Elvis Costello, plus Macy Gray, Betty LaVette, Living Color and Todd Rundgren (who recently recorded an album of Johnson covers), and others.
The Apollo show will incorporate sketches from Mr. Morton’s long-ago play, with Johnson depicted by Jeffrey Wright, who also played Muddy Waters–another Johnson admirer–in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records.” By doing so, the producers will try to add some texture to the myths associated with Johnson’s short, checkered and largely unknown life, which ended at the age of 27 under mysterious circumstances in 1938.
Rev. Steven Johnson, the bluesman’s grandson, will open Tuesday’s show with a prayer. The musicians will interpret 24 Johnson songs, including one, “Hell Hound on My Trail,” which will be sung separately both by James “Blood” Ulmer and Taj Mahal.
The concert is a benefit for the Blues Foundation, which is raising funds to build a Blues Hall of Fame across from the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. “It will be like the singer and the song standing side by side,” Mr. Morton said. The producers hope to raise at least $50,000 for the museum, as well as share some proceeds with the Robert Johnson Foundation.
Read more at The Wall Street Journal.