Robert One-Man Johnson

Homemade Blues, Rags, Old Time Jazz, and
Other 20th Century American Music
Singing and playing guitars, harmonica, low-boy cymbal, and
homemade 12 string bass foot-piano…simultaneously!


Life and Times

Early Years

Robert ‘One-Man’ Johnson (born Robert Vernon Valentine Johnson, September 12, 1942, in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, United States) is a singer-songwriter, musician, writer, and educator. He was raised in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. His family included father Kenneth, mother Alice, and four brothers: Thomas, Richard, Gary, and Stuart. He graduated from Rhinelander High School in 1960, from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1967 (BA Art Education/English), and from the University of Iowa in 1990 (MA Applied Linguistics / English Education). He is married (1972) to Margery Fairchild Johnson. Margery is an educator (retired), photographer, jeweler, artist, and graphic designer.

Musical Beginnings

Robert’s father, an accountant for a paper mill, worked a second job as the bookkeeper for a music store in Rhinelander Wisconsin. The elder Mr. Johnson frequently took his wages in barter for records, record players, radios, televisions, and miscellaneous musical instruments, often bringing home harmonicas and other small devices for Robert to play with. Robert began accordion lessons at age twelve but became interested in guitar from listening to country-western and early rock ‘n roll records. An accident at age thirteen fostered a strong relationship with music. Hit by a truck while riding his bicycle to school, he received fifty-five stitches in his right arm. His father bought him a new Danelectro guitar and a Gibson amp to encourage physical rehabilitation.


In 1958, at age 15, Johnson formed his first band, The Debonaires, which focused on covers of Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and The Coasters. Robert’s interest shifted to acoustic folk-blues after hearing recordings of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter). In 1963, while attending college, he formed The New Freedom Singers acoustic folk trio with Larry Heagle and James Zerrenner. In 1966 Robert joined the Rock Bottom River Band with Heagle, drummer Ron Keezer, bassist Jerry Way, and saxophonist John Bucholtz. At that time, Robert also opened a store front coffee house in Eau Claire called A Horse of A Different Color hosting internationally known blues and folk singers such as Jesse Fuller, Tracy Nelson, Koerner, Ray and Glover, and local musicians including Liz Thorssen, Mike Quick, and Earl’s Pearls Jug Band. In 1968, interested in electric guitar and harmonica in the Chicago blues style, he formed The Last Fair Deal Blues Band with Chuck Solberg piano, Mike Quick guitar, and Tom Swearingen drums.

Inspired by Jesse ‘Lone Cat’ Fuller on the stage of the Horse of a Different Color in 1966, Robert discovered a new direction for his musical interests. He began practicing the simultaneous playing of guitar, harmonica, hi-hat cymbal, and a pawn-shop electronic foot pedal bass. Dissatisfied with the synthesized electronic sound, Johnson developed his own acoustic ‘foot piano’, inspired by Fullers ‘fotdella’, using home-made wooden pedals, bass guitar strings, and a section cut from an upright piano. Robert has made and discarded many of these foot-operated devices, some acoustic and some incorporating various types of electric pickups. Played with a shoeless left foot, the intent of this evolving instrument is to present a 12 note bass line rhythm accompaniment producing a percussive sound that is a cross between an acoustic string bass and a kick drum. Tapping a cymbal with his right foot while his hands are occupied by acoustic, steel-bodied, or 12 string guitar, the mouth is saved for singing and blowing harmonica and kazoo. Robert sings original songs as well as classic country blues and folk tunes ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1950s.

During the years 1970-83, after finally developing his new one-man-band sound, Johnson toured the US as a solo artist. Represented by Linda Coulter of Coulter talent agency, ‘One-Man’ performed at colleges and festivals across the US. Johnson performed as a support act for noted headliners Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, John Prine, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and others. Solo performances during that period included presentations at New York City's  Museum of Modern Art, A Prairie Home Companion, Milwaukee Summerfest, Chicagofest, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the Iowa City Fine Arts Festival. Johnson also has appeared at many blues festivals, music clubs, and bars throughout the US.

In 1983 Johnson decided to cease US touring and joined his wife as an international educator in a sort of ‘dual career’.

While teaching English in Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia, China, and Thailand, Johnson continued to focus on his songwriting and performance, but now in collaboration with musicians from other countries. He has recorded and performed with Turkish fretless guitarist Erkan Ogur, Japanese blues guitarist Naoyuki Ishishiro, pop singer and guitarist Anothai Thititan of Bangkok, and Dennis McMurrin, blues/funk guitarist of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has often included the creative percussion of Estonian-American, Tiit Raid in his live performances and on recordings for his home-grown recording company Housedog Music. During his time as an English instructor to students from countries around the world, ‘One-Man’ used guitar and song as a method of instruction and motivation. He has written many songs with student input about the content of classroom lessons and recorded a CD of this work called Don’t Make a Dinosaur Sore. Now retired from international education, Robert ‘One-Man’ Johnson maintains two residences: one in northern Minnesota; and one in Iowa City, Iowa. He continues to record and perform from his Midwestern base.

Career Highlights

  • 2014 Member Iowa Blues Hall of Fame
  • 5 appearances on 'A Prairie Home Companion'
  • World stages in Istanbul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Nagoya
  • Concerts and festivals at colleges and universities throughout the US
  • Featured in Head, Hands, and Feet: A Book of One-Man Bands by Dave Harris

Major Venue Performances with

  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Dr. John
  • Muddy Waters
  • Dave Van Ronk
  • Hall and Oates
  • Leon Redbone
  • John Prine
  • Willie Dixon
  • James Cotton
  • Mose Allison
  • Sam Lay Blues Band
  • Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
  • Mink Deville
  • Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
  • Robert Jr. Lockwood
  • Corky Siegel
  • Honeyboy Edwards
  • Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen
  • Koko Taylor
  • Dave 'Snaker' Ray
  • John Koerner
  • John Hammond Jr.
  • Luther Allison

Sound Recordings

Sweet Mama, Don’t Let It Fall! (1976) Sweet Jane Records
Tom Mitchell autoharp, Chuck Solberg piano, Jeff Dagenhardt guitar, Snuffy Edwardsen, washboard; engineered and produced by Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray of Sweet Jane Records

’54 Chevrolet Panel Truck Blues (1978) Housedog Music
Solo album recorded live in-studio; engineered and produced by Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray of Sweet Jane Records

One-Man Cekirdek Resitali (1985) Turkish cassette release only
Recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey; produced by Fikret Kizilok

Istanbul’da Bir Amerikali (1986) Turkish cassette release only
Recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey, with Ilkin Deniz bass, and Erkan Ogur fretless guitar; produced by Fikret Kizilok

Beyaz Veya Siyah Midir? (1987) Turkish cassette release only
Recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey; produced by Fikret Kizilok

Mideast/Midwest (1989) Housedog Music
Tiit Raid, percussion, Randy Sabien, violin, Erkan Ogur, fretless guitar; recorded live at The Breadline in Eau Claire Wisconsin; recorded digitally by Larry Glenn

Bruise, Live in Nagoya (1992) Housedog Music
Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Chris Threlkeld Wiegand electric bass, Yukie Hara drums, and Masanori Honda percussion; recorded live at the Bottom Line and Club Quattro, Nagoya Japan by Andy Vorland

Don’t Make a Dinosaur Sore (1998) Housedog Music
Chris Wadsworth, banjo, Erkan Ogur, fretless guitar, Margery Johnson, spoons and Reha Erdir, voice; recorded by Reha Erdir in Istanbul Turkey

Let’s Get Primitive (2000) Housedog Music
Dave Moore accordion, Bobby Hendricks, tuba, Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Chris Wadsworth banjo, Dennis McMurrin electric guitar, Erkan Ogur classical and fretless electric guitars, and Tiit Raid percussion; recorded in Iowa City Iowa, Nagoya Japan, and Istanbul Turkey; produced by Patrick Bloom, Bo Ramsey, Reha Erdir and Robert Johnson

So Many Roads To Ramble (2000) Housedog Music
Tiit Raid, percussion and voice, Dennis McMurrin guitar; recorded live at the Sanctuary in Iowa City by Patrick Bloom

Flusteration! (2003) Housedog Music
Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Koichiro Taniguchi vocal, Tiit Raid percussion, and Dennis McMurrin guitar; produced by Patrick Bloom and Naoyuki Ishishiro; recorded in Iowa City and Nagoya Japan

50/50 (2006) Housedog Music; limited Chinese release
Ralph Greenblatt electric bass, and Andy Marks drums: trio format live at Happen Bar, Shanghai China; recorded by Jeff Thompson; re-mastered by Bob Goffstein

Soft Shoulders, Dangerous Curves (2013) solo album
Vocals, guitar, harmonica, and foot piano in simultaneous live recording in-studio; engineered, produced, and mixed by Bob Goffstein, Iowa City, Iowa

Housedog Music Presents! (2015) solo album
Old blues and jazz songs; vocals, guitar, harmonica, and foot piano in simultaneous live recording in-studio; engineered, produced, and mixed by Bob Goffstein, Iowa City, Iowa

Shows Throughout The Years

  • New York City Museum of Modern Art, Lone Star Café
  • Chicago Chicagofest, Earl of Old Town, Kingston Mines, Somebody Else's Troubles
  • New Orleans Tipitina’s, Tulanefest, Prytania Cafe
  • Tampa Skipper’s Smokehouse
  • Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival
  • Iowa City Hancher Auditorium, George’s, Clinton Street Social Club, The Sanctuary, The Mill, Uptown Bill's, Motley Cow
  • Milwaukee Summerfest, Teddy's, Blue River Cafe, The Mine Shaft
  • Philadelphia Main Point
  • Nagoya, Japan Bottom Line, Country Joe, Little Village, Armadillo, Otis
  • Minneapolis Artist Quarter, Triangle Bar, Coffeehouse Extempore, Riverside Cafe, 400 Bar, Palmer's Bar, William's Pub
  • Shanghai, China House of Blues & Jazz, Central Park Blues Festival, Happen Bar
  • Bangkok Thailand Ad Here 13, Phuket Blues Festival, Milano Cafe, Nomads
  • Istanbul, Turkey Jazz Café, Turkish Radio & TV, Anfora, Dil Hayat
  • Davenport Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, Stickman
  • Madison Church Key, Brink Lounge, The Rat
  • Wausau Blues Café, Malarkey’s Pub, Peking
  • Chippewa Falls Heyde Arts Center, Hotel Northern, FATFAR Tubing Festival
  • Eau Claire The Joynt, The Breadline, Brat Kabin, 
  • Duluth Bayfront Blues Festival, Fitger's Brewhouse, William's Northshore
  • Grand Rapids Boundary Waters Blues Festival
  • Bemidji Brigid’s Pub
  • Waubeek FB & Co., Red, White and Bluesfest
  • Mt. Vernon Lincoln Wine Bar
  • Cedar Rapids Village Meat Market, Old Neighborhood Pub, Whiskey Jo’s, Houby Days Festival
  • Marion QDogs Blues & BBQ
  • St.Paul Lowertown Blues Festival

International Postings

1983-1986 - Middle School Instructor, English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
Uskudar American Girls School, Istanbul Turkey

1986-1988 - Middle and High School Instructor, English for Technology and EFL
Robert College of Istanbul Turkey

1990-1993 - K-12 Director and Curriculum Coordinator for EFL
Nagoya International School, Nagoya Japan

1994-1999 - Grade 7-9 English Instructor
Yanbu International School, Yanbu Saudi Arabia

1999-2000 - High School EFL
Robert College, Istanbul Turkey

2001-2008 - Director, Middle School Writing Program, English Teacher
Shanghai American School, Shanghai China

2010-2011 - Middle School English and Substitute Teacher
International School Bangkok


Head, Hands & Feet: A Book of One Man Bands

by Dave Harris, 2012; ISBN#978-0-987650-0-7; Friesens Corporation, Canada

The New York Times, Weekend, Friday, June 3, 1977, Eleanor Blau

The Daily Iowan, July 11, 1977, Jay Walljasper

Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1977, Lynn Van Matre

St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 6, 1977, Dewey Berscheid

Illinois Entertainer Magazine, Vol.2/19; Staff