Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering Robert Lockwood Jr.

Robert Lockwood at 2005 Pocono Blues Festival
In light of my retrospective of some of the music of Robert Lockwood in the past few weeks, I thought it might make sense to republish my obituary of him that appeared in the December 2006, Jazz & Blues Report. I knew Robert some 36 years, first interviewing for the Case Western Reserve University student paper in Fall, 1970 and having him on my blues show on WRUW. I had the pleasure to see him perform numerous times over the next thirty five years, in a variety of contexts including several memorable performances at the Pocono Blues Festival and at the Ponderosa Stomp backed by his long-time bassist, Gene Schwartz. One mistake in my review is suggesting Lockwood’s “Aw Aw Baby” may have influenced Roosevelt Sykes. Sykes recording of “Sweet Old Chicago” probably was earlier and also, as Bob Koester notes in an interview on Blues Revue’s website with Don Wilcock, includes a verse that is not in most renditions of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Koester also notes the song's origins predate Scrapper Blackwell’s “Kokomo Blues.”

Robert Lockwood, legendary and highly influential bluesman, passed away Monday November 21 at the age of 91. Born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, near Marvell, Lockwood started playing a pump organ when at the age of 11 a traveling blues performer named Robert Johnson started a dalliance with Lockwood’s mother. Johnson showed Lockwood some stuff on the guitar and while still a teenager started playing around the Delta region with Johnson, Aleck Rice Miller (better known as Sonny Boy Williamson), Johnny Shines, Elmore James and others. For a period he lived in St. Louis, where along with blues singer, Dr. Clayton, he traveled to Chicago. In Chicago, he he backed Doctor Clayton and also made his initial recordings for Bluebird that included songs that became blues standards such as “Little Boy Blue,” “Take a Little Walk With Me” and “Mean Black Spider.” That latter number, retitled “Mean Red Spider,” was the first commercial recording of one Muddy Waters.

Robert Lockwood at 2005 Pocono Blues Festival
He returned to the Delta region and joined up with Miller for a new radio show, King Biscuit Time, that was broadcast at lunchtime and was heard throughout the delta region. Lockwood was one of the earliest electric guitarists in the south so his play- ing inspired numerous performers including B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Lockwood left King Biscuit to do his own broadcast for a competing company, Mothers Best Flour, backed by the Starkey Brothers, a jazzy band with horns in which Lockwood could expand his musical repertoire to include the big band and jump numbers that could be heard on radio and in juke boxes. He was an admirer of Charlie Christian among others and songs such as “Exactly Like You” and “Chinatown, My Chinatown” were also numbers that were part of his repertoire (as well as that of Robert Johnson) busking on the streets.

Later Lockwood mentored BB King, trying to get King to improve his timing. King’s timing was so bad, that Lockwood was among those who told Bullett Records to have King record with horns to cover his bad timing. Eventually Lockwood ended in Chicago where he became a session musician for a variety of labels appearing on classic Chicago blues recordings by Eddie Boyd, Willie Mabon, Baby Face Leroy Foster, Floyd Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, and most notably Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. He also recorded “Dust My Broom” before Elmore James did but Mercury sat on this record- ing and did not release it until later. His J.O.B. recording, “Aw Aw Baby” was perhaps the version of Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” that led to recordings by his good friend, Roosevelt Sykes and latter renditions by Junior Parker and Magic Sam that helped establish this as a blues anthem.
Robert Lockwood Being Honored at Pocono Blues Festival
by Blues Scholar Larry Hoffman with Lifetime Achievement Award
But the bulk of his work was supporting other artists and his marvelous chord work and single note runs behind Williamson and Little Walter were integral to these classic blues recordings. Lockwood toured with both and it was with Sonny Boy Williamson that he came to Cleveland in 1960 to play the legendary club, Gleason’s. He never left Cleveland and lived for the rest of his life there. 1960 was also when he was part of the legendary sessions that led to the classic Otis Spann albums, Otis Spann is the Blues and Walking the Blues.

During the sixties and early seventies he played local clubs while working delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy or as a painter. He was called on stage at the 2nd Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970 which was followed by his first solo album, Steady Rolling Man for Delmark where he was backed by the Aces. He recorded a number of very fine albums for several labels with the two Trix albums, Contrasts and Does 12 both standing out. By the late seventies, he had stopped playing his Gretsch Chet Atkins model for a 12-string guitar and continued trying to come up with new sounds and songs at an age where many would retire or recreate past glories. He recorded a couple of fine albums with Johnny Shines for Rounder, although a severe stroke suffered by Shines limited the extent of the collaboration. He was honored with Handy Awards, induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and in 1995 President Clinton presented him with a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment For the Arts.

Lockwood’s influence on blues guitar is under appreciated. Guitarists Louis Meyers, Matt Murphy, Eddie Taylor and Luther Tucker are among those Lockwood touched in the fifties and sixties and more were influenced in latter years. Bob Dylan reportedly asked Lockwood to show him some tips on how to play some of Robert Johnson’s songs.

I was fortunate to know Robert for over 35 years. Some folks meeting him could view him as arrogant, but if they checked out what Robert told them they would discover he was simply stating facts. I found him quite engaging with a very dry, wry sense of humor, and someone I am pleased to have known and had interviewed on several occasions. His death coming on the heels of Ruth Brown’s passing is another great loss for the blues community. The sweet sound of his playing still resonates in my head and I will miss him as a performer and a person.

I took the photos that are part of this blog entry.

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