Early this mornin', ooh, when you knocked upon my door
And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go.'
-- Robert Johnson, "Me and the Devil Blues"
From Paganini to Robert Johnson to Dr. Dre, the Devil keeps popping up in popular mythology, hovering around some of the most successful musicians ever, eating up their souls like candy. He can't keep his hands off them.
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was the best violinist of his time, possibly of any time. Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt -- the greatest musicians of the day -- idolized him. His playing forever changed violin music and our expectations of virtuosity. Some people actually believed he was the Devil incarnate.
But the more popular story, and the one that has been handed down over the generations since his death, is that Paganini's mother made a deal with the Devil when the boy was all of six years old -- the Devil gets the boy's soul for eternity, Mrs. Paganini gets to see her son become the greatest violinist who ever lived.By his last international tour, Paganini was the leading celebrity of the day and making more money than any performer before him.
Robert Johnson, similarly, had a way with the blues guitar that still makes guitarists 75 years after his death drool with envy, somehow simultaneously creating melodies, bass lines and bell-like harmonics on the guitar while moaning soulful blues lyrics -- a one-man orchestra. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards both regard Johnson as the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived. Many of his fans believed the story, first told by his fellow blues musicians in the 1930s, that Johnson had met the Devil at midnight at a crossroads (U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., according to one source). The Devil silently took his guitar from him, tuned it and handed it back. The deal was done. Johnson was instantly the greatest guitarist around and his soul was condemned. Similar rumors have swirled around Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and other pop musicians. Most recently, an editor here at TheStreet pointed out to me that Dr. Dre -- listed by Forbes as the highest-paid entertainer of 2012 and the subject of my column a few weeks ago -- is said to be in the Devil's pocket. If rumors are to be believed, so is Lady Gaga. The legend about Dre is fueled by a quote from record producer Dick Griffey regarding a lucrative contract between Dre and Sony (SNE - Get Report). Griffey told Dre biographers John Borgmeyer and Holly Lang, "I was there when Dre said he sold his soul to the Devil for a million bucks. And I swear the Devil has got have a receipt for his ass." That funny observation is taken out of context on dozens of Web sites and folded into a conspiracy that has Dre as a member of the Illuminati, re-imagined for the 21st century.