Tommy Johnson was born in 1896 on a plantation just south of Jackson, Mississippi, moving in his teens to Crystal Springs, which became his home.  He had his first guitar lessons from his older brother Ledell, and in 1921 they both moved to Drew, Mississippi, where they played on a regular basis with Charley Patton and Willie Brown. He became a major figure on the Jackson blues scene, and when not performing, Johnson spent most of the 1920's drinking, womanising, and gambling. When he did perform it was generally in the company of Charlie McCoy, Son Spand, and Ishmon Bracey. He made little effort to promote his career and only played when he needed money to sustain his lifestyle. When he did play, he put on quite a show, playing the guitar at times behind his head in the fashion of Charley Patton. Reference has been made to Johnson having at some time alluded to having a meeting with the devil at a crossroads. It is said that to enhance his fame he cultivated a sinister persona, and his brother LeDell Johnson later said that Tommy claimed to have made a pact with "Ol' Scratch" at the crossroads. This may in some way have contributed to the myths that surrounded Robert Johnson, and it may be that the two stories became mixed up in later decades.

Even though he was more serious about his drinking than his career, he did travel to Memphis to be recorded by RCA/Victor. During that session, Johnson recorded his best works, and his releases became very popular in the South, inspiring many up-and-coming artists such as Houston Stackhouse and his cousin Robert Nighthawk, and the legendary Howlin' Wolf, who imitated Tommy's wild performing style. Even the Wolfman's trademark howl was inspired by Johnson's penchant for going from a smooth tenor voice to an eerie falsetto. Ironically it is likely that Johnson had a speech impediment, having been described as being 'tongue tied' or as having a stutter, but this disappeared when he began to sing.

Johnson cut some more sides in 1930 for the Paramount label, largely organised by fellow drinking buddy Charley Patton. Although Johnson only recorded 14 songs in his career, his style was kept alive by his peers and disciples. His best known song is "Big Road Blues" which has been covered by countless artists since. Another song of Tommy Johnson's was "Canned Heat Blues" which records his struggle with trying to find a "kick" by any means. Canned Heat (a nickname for 'Sterno' cooking fuel) provided the blues-rock band Canned Heat with their name. Johnson also drank Jake, a medicinal drink high in alcohol with the unfortunate side effect of eventually causing partial paralysis of the legs (Jake Leg, Jake Shuffle). At times Johnson was so desperate that he would drink shoe polish and denatured alcohol when there was nothing else available. After 1930, Johnson never recorded any more records, despite continuing to perform on a regular, if spasmodic, basis. In 1956, aged 60, with his body weakened from years of abuse, he suffered a fatal heart attack whilst playing at a party in Crystal Spring

      Alcohol And Jake Blues (excerpt)