Where It All Began

Alex Abramovich

Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings came out in the summer of 1990. It sold so well that the phrase on a sticker attached to the cellophane became inextricable from Johnson’s legend: ‘This is where it all began.’

Actually, Johnson came along late in his art form’s development, making all his records in 1937 and 1938. (By way of comparison, all the old-timey records on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music were cut in a five-year span that started a decade earlier, in 1927.) The old, acoustic country blues, played by solo musicians, weren’t dead – beautiful examples were being written and recorded in the 1940s and 1960s – but they were on their way out. Bill Broonzy was already experimenting with combos, with amplification; stuff that came to define the blues in its next decade. You could just as easily have argued that Broonzy is where it all began.

I found out recently that it was an old friend of mine who’d come up with the tagline. Thirty-two years ago, David Brendel was working his first ‘formal’ job, writing ad copy for Columbia Records reissues. ‘They’d give me an unreleased orchestral work by Charles Mingus,’ he told me.

I’d get high, walk a few blocks, over to MoMA, and listen to it while staring at this one Jackson Pollock. Then, I’d write the ad, working on carbon paper on an electric typewriter. Sony had just bought the company. Even in the art department, they had no computers. I swear, I harangued them into buying computers. The phones were all rotary phones, which made them less traceable, and free long distance was a big deal in that era. That alone was a good reason to work there, and I had been there for a few months, at most, when this 2-CD reissue of Robert Johnson came across my desk. They needed a tagline. My boss – an old label exec – wanted to go with ‘Da Beauty of Da Blues’. [In his defence, this was a different era. George C. Wolfe hadn’t even made Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk yet.] But I argued with him. I walked a few blocks, over to MoMA, and sat down in front of the Pollock. The night before, I’d been watching a VHS tape of the Monterey Pop Festival, the part where Pete Townshend says: ‘This is where it all … ends.’ Suddenly, I had it: ‘This is where it all begins!’

Bad history maybe, but good marketing. The box set went on to sell a million copies, won a Grammy for ‘Best Historical Album’ and sparked a renewal of interest in American vernacular music – thanks, in part, to Pete Townshend, Jackson Pollock and an especially potent strain of sativa. ‘I fought with the executive some more,’ Brendel told me.

I won, and had the pleasure of seeing that tagline became the tagline of Sony/Legacy’s entire Roots n’Blues series. That reissue series was major for me and for so many people. It was curated so beautifully. It wasn’t as cool as Yazoo or Document – not that listening to 78rpm records on CD was ever cool. But it was outstanding. Hits like Moby’s redo of Bill Landford’s ‘Run For a Long Time’ were still coming out a decade later.