Dawayne Gilley’s interest in blues legend Robert Johnson has taken him around the country, and finally led him back to Pittsburg, the place where it all started.
“I’m an automotive technology graduate of Pittsburg State University, and I took a music appreciation class from Robert Kehle, which is where it started,” said Gilley, Kansas City, Kan. “I’m from Kansas City, but I learned about music from Kansas City at PSU.”
He makes his living as a quality engineer at the Ford Claycomo Assembly Plant in the Kansas City area. What he does for love is research and promote the blues, including organizing the renowned Kansas City, Kan., Street Blues Festival for several years.
He admires jazz greats, but it is Robert Johnson who caught his interest.
“He’s as much of a figurehead and creative standout as Charlie Parker, Louie Armstrong, or, later, Jimi Hendrix,” Gilley said. “Eric Clapton and John Mellencamp revere him.”
Born on May 8, 1911, Johnson died Aug. 16, 1938, only 27 years old. In between, he played guitar and sang, mostly on street corners, juke joints and dances, perfecting what became known as the Mississippi Delta blues style. He also made a few recordings between 1936-37.
“He was the Bach and Beethoven of the blues,” Gilley said. “He recorded at the very end of the Delta acoustic blues period, which was the 1920s and 1930s, and if it weren’t for those records, nobody today would know who Robert Johnson is.”
Johnson had walked into a music store in Jackson, Miss., and told the proprietor, H.C. Spier, that he wanted to be a recording artist.
Spier was a music talent scout and was impressed by Johnson’s singing. He promised to give his name to the next record company that asked him about talent. And that next company representative was a man named Ernie Oertle, a record salesman with Vocalion and ARC records.
“And where do you think Ernie came from?” Gilley said. “He was from Pittsburg, and there are still Oertle family members living here today.”
Oertle was born in 1894 in Pittsburg and was a sergeant major in World War I.
“Ernie ended up in Dallas as one of the first radio salesmen,” Gilley said. “Then he met Don Law of Vocalion/ARC and got a job taking sample records out. Spier was a customer.”
It was Oertle who personally took Johnson, around Thanksgiving 1936, to room 414 in the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, for his first recording session.
“Eric Clapton and John Mellencamp have gone to that same room to record,” Gilley said. “I’ve been in that room.”
He said that Johnson sold only about 5,500 records during his lifetime. The blues artist was discovered in 1961 after a reissue of his recordings, and now those original records are worth a fortune. Gilley is fortunate enough to own one of them, of Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.”
Page 2 of 2 - “I’ve collected old records forever and found it in basically a junk shop,” he said. “I paid 50 cents for it and it’s worth $10,000.”
That song and “Cross Road Blues” have helped perpetuate the myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his musical skills.
“As a kid, he didn’t play guitar that well and was ridiculed,” Gilley said. “The story is that he vanished for two or three months, and when he came back, he could play like nobody’s business.”
However he came by his skill, Johnson is considered by critics today as one of the all-time guitar greats.
Another fan, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, has said that “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
Little is known about his life, and his cause of death is also open to question, though the time and place is known.
“They say that a jealous husband gave him a drink of poisoned whiskey,” Gilley said. “Johnson started acting odd afterward, but it took him three or four days to die.”
Gilley visited recently in Pittsburg, hoping to talk with any Oertle relatives who could tell him more about Ernie, but also to let them know just what a major role he played in American musical history.
“Ernie taking Robert Johnson to that recording session was like a lottery ticket that Ernie didn’t cash, but the world did,” Gilley said.