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Illegitimate Son Of Long-Dead Blues Singer Receives Royalties

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Robert L. Johnson

JUNE 26, 2000 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 52

When Robert L. Johnson died in Mississippi in 1938, he was largely unknown. The 27-year-old had a musical gift, and he left a number of blues recordings. There did not appear to be any valuable property in his estate at the time, though, so no probate was initiated.

In 1991, after a resurgence of interest in Mississippi blues Mr. Johnson earned his first royalties. A probate estate was started to handle the payments and determine Mr. Johnson’s heirs.

Caroline Thompson had been Mr. Johnson’s last surviving sister, but she died in 1983. She left a will naming two of her relatives to receive her entire estate, and they claimed that they were entitled to Mr. Johnson’s estate as well, since it would have passed to Ms. Thompson.

Claud L. Johnson disagreed. Although his mother was unmarried when he was born, Claud Johnson had always been told that his father was blues singer Robert L. Johnson. His birth certificate even listed “R.L. Johnson” as the father.

The probate court at first refused to accept Claud Johnson’s claim, finding that it was too late to determine paternity of a 60-year-old man more than a half century after the death of the alleged father. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered the probate court to hold a hearing on Claud Johnson’s petition.

In addition to testimony from Claud Johnson himself the probate court received a deposition from Claud’s mother. She insisted that Robert L. Johnson was Claud’s father, that she had not had sex with anyone else at the time of conception, and that Robert L. Johnson acknowledged that he was the father. Two other friends testified that they had seen Robert L. Johnson with Claud and his mother.

Most poignantly, the court heard from a childhood friend of Claud’s mother, Eula Mae Williams. Ms. Williams testified that she and her then boyfriend spent time with Robert L. Johnson and Claud’s mother. She testified that the two couples went for a walk in the woods in the spring of 1931, and ended up having sex within sight of one another. When the lawyer for the other family members challenged her by suggesting that he would never have watched another couple making love, Ms. Williams retorted: “I’m sorry for you.”

Claud L. Johnson was found to be Robert L. Johnson’s son, and entitled to his estate. The other claimants appealed. The Mississippi Supreme Court, saying that Ms. Williams’ testimony “rings true,” agreed that the evidence in favor of Claud Johnson’s claim was clear and convincing. Estate of Robert L. Johnson, June 15, 2000.

In 1936 Robert L. Johnson recorded “Hellhound On My Trail” (among other blues songs). “You sprinkled hot foot powder all around your daddy’s door,” he sang. Indeed.

You can listen to (or purchase copies of) Robert Johnson’s recordings. Or you can listen to Eric Clapton covering the Robert Johnson oeuvre. Think of Claud L. Johnson as you do.

Update: Claud L. Johnson died in 2015. You can read more about his life, both before and after the estate litigation, at the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.