I’ve known Robert Lockwood since the fall of 1970, my senior year at Case Western Reserve University when I interviewed him for a student newspaper. At the time Robert was driving a delivery truck for a Cleveland pharmacy, and playing music part time. The previous summer he attended the second Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and was coaxed up on stage where gave a great performance that led to his first album Steady Rolling Man (on Delmark) as well as playing on a Roosevelt Sykes album, Feel Like Blowing My Horn (also on Delmark). In addition to my interview of Robert in the fall of 1970, I had him on my radio show on the CWRU station. WRUW‑FM in Spring of 1971, and I had the opportunity to interview him in a Buffalo hotel May 12, 1978 (which Jim O’Neal and Amy Van Singel transcribed for a Living Blues interview that never ran).
|Robert Lockwood Jr at the 2005 Pocono Blues Festival|
In a review of Robert Lockwood Jr.’s new recording, What’s the Score, in the first issue of Blues Revue Quarterly, Brett Bonner writes, “Robert Lockwood is one of the greatest guitarists the blues has ever produced. His music has, in its own subtle way, shaped the blues of the modern era.” Living Blues editor Peter Lee concluded an article on Lockwood in the July, 1991 Guitar Player, “Lockwood’s history is almost that of the blues. Yet he brought something more to the blues in both his style and in his playing. And in doing that, he can claim much more than most musicians could ever hope to.”
Robert Lockwood was born 20 miles from Helena in Marvell, Arkansas on March 27, 1915. He was raised on a farm outside town by his mother Esther Lockwood (Shannon). At the age of 7, he was taken by his mother to St. Louis, the first of many trips to that town, but this trip was a brief one and they soon returned South to live near Helena. Robert recalled growing up in Marvel, Helena, Memphis, & St. Louis. “Most of my schoolin’ was in Helena. And I dropped out of school when I was about 14, 13 ‑ something like 13, 14 years old. Started to work and try to take care of my mother.” His mother struggled to make ends meet as a cook for a white family, and Robert dropped out of school in 7th grade, finding work in the cotton fields and levee camps. He also started playing music as an additional way to make money.
|Robert Lockwood Jr at 2005 Pocono Blues Festival|
Recalling this time, Robert stated “That’s when I started to learn to play. Yeah. I was about 13 1/2 years old. During that time I was doin’ farm work. Going out with the cotton chopping trucks, cotton picking trucks‑things like that. But the women wasn’t makin’ no money at that time. Females worked for $3 a week and that kind of shit.... Whenever I could get a job, I’d make around $9. About $9‑10 a week. That was a lot of money at that time.”
Robert didn’t recall a lot of music around the area growing up. “ There was people who was trying to play but, I don’t know. I just didn’t find too many guitar players interesting. I didn’t have no desire to play no guitar. I Thought I was goin’ be a piano player.” Asked if there were a lot of good piano players he answered “There wasn’t a lot. But the piano, you could very well play it by yourself without any help. And that’s what I always wanted when I was beginning-to not have to depend on anybody to help me. As the years passed, I got used to trying to put things together and I got used to help. My ambition was at first to play by myself. But I found it a little boring and dull as the years passed ‑ running all over the world by yourself. I done that for about 10 years, you know about 10 or 11 years, or longer.”
Robert Johnson was the impetus for Robert Lockwood becoming a guitarist. “He was my teacher.” Recalling how he met Johnson, he stated “Oh Robert met my mother. He followed my mother home. He hung around there for, oh, a couple of months. I guess. And my mother at first felt like he was too young but Robert could talk that way‑back talk. He didn’t look like he was no older than me. But I guess he was about 4 or 5 years older than I am. But I met Robert through my mother. And when he found out I was so interested in music, he finally decided to teach me. So, I’m very grateful about that cause my very first beginnin’ was not bad.”
|At the 2005 Pocono Blues Festival|
Lockwood recalled that Robert Johnson was a “very good musician.... I never heard Robert try to play nothin’ like nobody else. Really I wondered where did he get his understandin’ and style from. I never heard nobody play like him.... Oh you can listen to his records today and you don’t hear nobody playin’ like him but me. Nobody but me.” When I asked about Johnny Shines Robert stated, “Johnny Shines come close. Johnny Shines do pretty good, but he doesn’t play like Robert. So I teaches Johnny Shines every time I see him. Well, we grew up together. You know that.”
Robert recollected travelling with his mentor. “I went quite a few places with Robert ... quite a few. But Robert usually liked to travel alone. That was something else that I didn’t quite understand. But he carried me to Mississippi with him two or three times and he went up into some parts of Arkansas ‑ Eldorado, Arkansas, Camden and different places. I made about three trips with Robert.” Robert remembered some of the other musicians playing at the time. “Oh there was quite a few people down there that’s been gone a long time now. There was a dude called Son Kelly, and one called Stormy Weather. There was two brothers ‑ the Britt brothers, Jim Britt and W.B. Britt. All these people had help. I mean there was always two guitars ‑ one playing lead and the other one playin’ background you know.”
Many of the musicians that would be a vital part of the Chicago blues of the 1950s and 1960s were in Memphis. Robert knew Big Walter Horton in Memphis in the thirties and was the first one to take Walter away from home. “Walter was playin’ what was bein’ recorded. Wasn’t nobody recordin’ then but Big Bill, Peetie Wheatsraw and Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Memphis Minnie. Walter was playin’ better then he do now.” When I asked Robert what was better about Walter’s playing then. “I don’t know, just seemed like [he was playing better] . . . maybe it was like a kind of new experience to me. Maybe he wasn’t, you know. But he was playin’ like hell then. See Walter and I had left Memphis and went down into a levee camp and came back with so much money Walter’s mother thought we’d done robbed somebody. Yeah, I picked Walter up in Memphis and carried him with me. And brought him back home. He could play. Walter was always a loner, too. You never see Walter, see him with nobody.”
Robert remembered Howlin’ Wolf. “Howlin’ Wolf? Yeah. When I first started playin’ Howlin’ Wolf was trying to play guitar. I used to run into Howlin’ Wolf when we were both runnin’ up and down the road. Howlin’ Wolf was tryin’ to play the guitar then. I didn’t know nothin’ about him playin’ no harp until ... I went down there, it was just after ’40, after ’41. I went back down South and he had a band in West Memphis and was playin’ the harp. I said, “Well I’ll be doggone.”
It was Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) who first took Robert Jr. to Mississippi. “I met Sonny Boy through Robert. Robert was always in Mississippi ‑ well Robert’s home was in Mississippi too. And Robert was steady goin’ to and from Mississippi and he would run into Sonny Boy and I think they would play some together. And Robert was steady tellin’ Sonny Boy about me. And as the years passed, Sonny Boy finally came to Helena looking for me. He came over and begged my mother to let me go to Mississippi with him. She never wanted me to go to Mississippi, but he finally convinced her. And she told me to go ahead. And I’d been goin’ all up and down the road by myself, you know, but she just didn’t want me to go in Mississippi. Well, Mississippi was pretty bad then on Blacks. And I went to Mississippi with Sonny Boy, and we made a lot of money. $100 was a lot of money then.”
|Robert Lockwood Jr honored with Lifetime Achievement Award at 2005 Pocono Blues Festival by Larry Hoffman|
This was around 1936 or 1937. Sonny Boy wasn’t calling himself Sonny Boy at the time, but rather called himself “Boy Blue”. People were also calling him “Rice.” When John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson started making records, Rice Miller started calling himself Sonny Boy. “And Big Sonny Boy could play Little Sonny Boy’s material better than he could play it. So, the way I understand it, they knew each other somehow, but Little Sonny Boy got a chance to make those records. And I think he was a good song writer, Little Sonny Boy was. Both of ‘em was.... Anyway I remember when Little [Sonny] Boy came to Helena. Well when he came to Helena I had played with him. I played with Little Sonny Boy in 1938‑39.... 1939 and a part of 1938, played with Little Sonny Boy in St. Louis. We used to play a lot of house parties. So in 1942 he came to Helena. Well, the word had got around that Sonny Boy Williamson was down South. He came down there and they talked about it and Little Sonny Boy got on the same station ‑ KFFA. And he stayed on that station for about two months. And that really confused the people. Oh man, I’ve seen some things man."
Robert joined the King Biscuit Time radio show in 1941 a few months after it started with the second Sonny Boy. “I went down after I recorded those records for RCA Victor. And I went down and Sonny Boy grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I stayed with Sonny Boy down there for about two years. And me and the owner of King Biscuit Time, we never got along too well ‑ he’s still living‑ and so I finally split. Well what was really happenin’, then, they wasn’t payin’ nothing. But the publicity was gettin’ us a lot of work. Me and Sonny Boy was playin’ seven nights a week, you know. And those road engagements was really payin’ off, you know.” Responding to my observation that life on the road must have been rough, Robert Jr.. stated, “Nah, it’s not rough when you like it. You know, you just have to like it. You have to like it. There are a lot of people who don’t like it who just be out there for the money. Then it goes kind of hard with them so that’s why they get on all these old different kinds of drugs and dope and stuff‑ to be able to work.”
|Longtime Lockwood band member, Maurice Reedus|
By the late thirties Robert Lockwood was living and playing in St. Louis, a rich blues community which at the time was the home of Peetie Wheatstraw, Sonny Boy Willliamson I, Henry Townsend, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Dr. Clayton and others. It was with Dr. Clayton, that Lockwood got his first chance to record. “Well Dr. Clayton‑ ton and me and John Lee Williams, which was Little Sonny Boy, and Peetie Wheatstraw and Walter Davis and Elijah Williams and Booker T.. Washington - we all was runnin’ around there in St. Louis - playin’ on the street corners and different little towns in Illinois, you know, and Dr. Clayton and me would sit down and share ideas with each other. And we both was writing songs, you know. So Clayton had been to Chicago and he kept tellin” me, he said, ‘Well, let’s go to Chicago.” So I had a job parking cars, I was working at the Ninth and Chestnut garage. And I got that job down there and kind of got myself together‑ I bought me a lot of clothes, bought me a brand new instrument, and bought me a union card. So when we came to Chicago we came to Chicago to record for Decca. The talent scout was J. Mayo Williams and Mayo Williams was out of town so . . . during this process we ran into Lester Melrose and Lester Melrose and Mayo Williams was racin’ over talent, because at that time, the black musicians, blues singers, they wasn’t paying them a goddam thing ‑ you know about 15% of 1¢ royalty.... That’s what they promised you, know. So anyway, Dr. Clayton and me, I think we got better from Melrose than anybody else. Clayton really got paid ‑ he really got some money out of it. See well, I got $900 for playing with Clayton and for doing my own session. And at that time they was only paying $12.50 a side for a record and then a session was called two records. So that meant you made $50 for a recording session But I told Melrose to forget about the 15% and, oh, he hollered. He didn’t want to give me that much money. He told me, ‘I could record 10 people for what l’m payin’ and you’re askin’ for.’ But what made him record me was I told him, I said, ‘I didn’t come here to record for Victor in no way, you. I’ll just wait until Mayo Williams comes. And he didn’t want Mayo to get me. Oh, we went through a pretty bad time cause he was telling me that he didn’t know whether my material was goin’ to sell or not and ‘I’m taking a chance.’ And I started naming all the dudes who was playin’ for him which was Big Bill, Tampa Red and Johnny Temple.”
Both Big Bill and Tampa Red should be relatively well known to most blues listeners. Jackson, Mississippi born Johnny Temple may not have been a great instrumentalist but was a rather prolific recording artist of the thirties and forties. Robert kidded me about not knowing Temple’s biggest record, “Well, his best record was ‘Big Leg Woman.’ I can’t see how you missed that. But Johnny Temple and those dudes who was playin’ those guitars ... and Melrose, he really didn’t dig me too much because I’m kinda of straightforward about saying what I think. When I think I’m right, I mean you got a problem ‘cause I’m not goin’ be givin’ in, you know. So he was tellin’ me about how he didn’t know whether my stuff was gonna sell or not and I told him, I said, ‘You can line all them sons of bitches you got ‑ that play by themself ‑ and I’ll just walk right through them. I play what they play and play what they don’t play.’ And he really didn’t like that either. But he wouldn’t let me go. He wouldn’t agree and let me record for Decca. So he finally come up with the contract and I recorded for him.”
Robert recorded four selections that were released: Take a Little Walk With Me, Mean Black Spider, Gonna Train My Baby and Little Boy Blue. With the exception of Train My Baby, the songs became blues standards that were recorded by countless other blues artists. Muddy Waters recorded Take a Little Walk With Me for the Library of Congress and his reworking of Mean Black Spider as Mean Red Spider was among Muddy’s first recordings for Chess Records. Robert gave songs to Muddy and others including Glory for Man which Sonny Boy II recorded as All My Love in Vain, Elevator Blues for John Lee ‘Little Sonny Boy’ Williamson and That s All Right for Jimmy Rogers.
Video of Robert Lockwood Jr.
After the Bluebird recordings, Robert moved back down to Arkansas, joining the King Biscuit Time show with Sonny Boy. He remembered other musicians. “WelI in Helena there was Willie Love and Dudlow. That dude, he was nicknamed, was Robert Taylor. And Starkey Brothers. The Starkey Brothers used to be with me ‑ they was part of my first band. And a dude who used to live in Marianna named Jim Leake ‑ he had a string band. And an old man called Poppa Crump that played piano very good. And there’s somebody else who I know real good and I can’t think of him for nothing.” Robert formed his first band with the Starkey Brothers after leaving King Biscuit Time and started his own show for Mother’s Best Flour, a competing company to the Interstate Company that sold King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Corn meal. This band was a much jazzier group than the band with Sonny Boy. As Robert Palmer chronicles in his excellent book, Deep Blues, Robert Lockwood was one of the first amplified guitar players in the Delta region and exerted considerable influence on numerous musicians including the late Joe Willie Wilkins who was one of the other guitarists that was associated with Sonny Boy and King Biscuit Time, the Murphy Brothers, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, Louis Myers, Freddie King, and very significantly B.B. King.
When I first met Robert, he mentioned the fact that he had been working with B.B. King at the outset of B.B.’s career, trying to help B.B. work on his time while working with B.B. as a sideman. Frustrated with B.B.’s apparent inability to pick up on this aspect, Robert wanted to quit but B.B. cajoled him to stay a while longer, and when he left told the record company that was going to record B.B. to use a big band to help cover some of B.B.’s timing mistakes. It was almost two decades after Lockwood left B.B. King’s band before B.B. hired another guitarist to play in his band, so deep an impression Robert left with the Blues King.
In the early fifties Robert moved to Chicago where he would stay until the early sixties. In Chicago he became a major part of the blues scene there, recording Dust My Broom for the J.O.B. label a few months before Elmore James’ classic recording, along with Aw Aw Baby (a version of Sweet Home Chicago) and the jazzy Sweet Woman from Maine as well as established as a session player on recordings by Sunnyland Slim, drummer Alfred ‘Fat Man’ Wallace, pianist Eddie Boyd and others. While none of these records were heavy sellers, they stand up today as small gems of postwar Chicago blues. They have been reissued on a Flyright CD, Johnny Shines & Robert Lockwood which also contains Johnny Shines earliest recordings.
When Louis Myers left Little Walter’s band, the Jukes (or the Aces), in a money dispute, Robert replaced him and ended up working with Walter for several years. Robert once told the story of travelling in the south with Little Walter, and they came across some place where the pace had a sign saying that Little Walter was playing. This fact was news to them, and they had problems convincing people there that Little Walter was the real Little Walter.
Another video of Robert Lockwood Jr.
Robert was a mainstay of the Chicago recording scene, being on numerous sessions for Chess Records until the sixties when Buddy Guy assumed a similar role. Robert’s carefully placed chords and immaculate sense of timing perfectly complemented Walter’s hard driving harp solos, Eddie Boyd’s uptown band blues or Rice Miller’s wry vocals. Robert also did sessions with Muddy Waters, Floyd Dixon, Willie Mabon and the Mooglows for Chess. In 1961 Robert Jr.. travelled with Otis Spann and St. Louis Jimmy Oden to record for Candid Records. At the time, the classic album Otis Spann is the Blues with four vocals each from Spann and Lockwood along with two instrumental from Spann. Lockwood once expressed his belief that the album should have been with a full band, yet there can be little disputing the superb playing by both, with Lockwood’s guitar being a perfect compliment for Spann’s piano. A small glimpse of what might have been with a full band was two songs Spann recorded for Chess with Lockwood, Walter Horton, Willie Dixon and Fred Below that were not even known to exist until they turned up on Japanese import some ten years ago, Chicago Pianology, presenting two powerful examples of classic Chicago blues.
Shortly after returning to Chicago, Robert went to Cleveland with Rice Miller to play a club called Gleason’s for a short gig. While the second Sonny Boy left Cleveland after about nine months, Robert settled in to what has become his home town and raised his family with his wonderful wife, Annie. Musically, he remains active and doesn’t rest on his past laurels or reputation; still writing songs and still developing his music as when he started focusing on a twelve string guitar over a decade ago. He has made a number of fine albums. His Delmark album Steady Rolling Man is on vinyl or cassette, while his two Trix albums, Contrasts and Does Twelve are unfortunately out of print as is a wonderful Live in Japan that he recorded with the Aces. Similarly hard to find should be two albums he collaborated with Johnny Shines that were on Rounder. More recently he recorded an album for the French Black & Blue label Plays Robert & Robert on which he played an acoustic 12 string guitar. This album was recently issued on cassette. Most recently he recorded the fine What’s the Score on his own Lockwood label which also spotlights second guitarist Mark Hahn and harmonica player Wallace Coleman, as well as show that Lockwood is the ideal blues accompanist. While some will go to se Robert initially because of the connection with his stepfather, (Robert Johnson), after hearing him they’ll understand why Bob Dylan was picking up a few pointers from him a decade ago. He is a Giant of the Blues.
This originally appeared in The DC Blues Calendar and Jazz & Blues Report, likely in 1991 or 1992,