I have bittersweet memories about recording "Robert Johnson." I wrote it when I was 23; played it for David Spinozza and Al Gorgoni in Spinozza's spacious, rent controlled apartment in the east 70s in Manhattan in the fall of '78. Spinozza flipped for it- I could tell the last line spoke to him about the compromises a prodigiously gifted talent such as himself had been forced to endure: "You are certain to be torn between the promise you show people, and the promises you make to yourself." (He told me he would have preferred the line to be "the promises you made to yourself," but I considered it, and stuck to the original.)
We recorded the basic tracks in the big beautiful Studio A at The House of Music in the late fall/early winter of '78. (I later replaced my acoustic guitar part with one that was recorded- and isolated- better. I used my rosewood Guild D-50 with a set of light bronze strings, custom made in Asbury Park by my guitar tech, Phil Petillo, who also did all the guitar work for two other locals, Bruce Springsteen and Jim Croce.) As we were running it down, with Chris Parker creating an infectious groove that was influenced by one of our heroes (drummer) Steve Gadd, Francisco ("Frankie") Centeno started to play this fairly unconventional melodic bass line in the intro, with long sustained (instead of short, punchy, rhythmic) notes. I remember that I didn't know how I felt about it; but I deferred to Spinozza, who loved it, and helped Frankie complete the idea.
The bittersweet part of this memory is related to the cold, gray day near Christmas, when Spinozza brought his old friend (and in some ways, mentor) Hugh McCracken in for overdubs. Hugh, an A-list guitarist with a lot of prestige (he played with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, countless others) was a quiet man in a loud business. I noticed how Spinozza acted with respect and affection, bestowing a Christmas present on him at the session, and treating him like an admired elder statesman, even in the context of joking around, as he often did. But what happened next turned into a little bit of a runaway train for me. I let them do their thing, Spinozza suggesting that Hugh (who was the go to guy in New York those days for both slide guitar and harmonica playing) create a part on slide and then double it on harmonica, a process that took a good deal of time. The problem was I didn’t really like that direction- it sounded weak to me, where something strong and even a little wild was needed. Bonnie Raitt had volunteered to play on the album, and I had considered the idea of her playing slide on this song about the world’s most incomprehensible, and supernaturally talented slide player, but there was no way I was going to stop these two old friends from following their instincts, and enjoying themselves. After Hugh nailed a beautiful rhythmic “harp” accompaniment to the bridge, he came in and, even as a man of few words, stated “That’s my favorite kind of harmonica playing.” Spinozza, who was obviously pleased, deflected the comment with a session guy joke “Who cares what you think?” It ended up being the one (brilliant) part of the session that made it to the final mix. Ultimately I asked Spinozza to replace the other parts, which he did (initially reluctantly, for obvious reasons) with some of the most blistering, bluesy leads he had ever committed to record. Almost symbolically, he blew up John Tropea’s Roland amp with four bars to go- we had to send the amp out to be fixed, and if you listen you can hear the break at the end: the last phrases were recorded two weeks later.
As Hugh was leaving, I remember him taking off his glove to shake my hand- a class act. But he basically never spoke to me again- and I really couldn’t blame him.