Lockwood, Robert Jr.
Robert Jr. Lockwood
Beginning as the protégé of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood went on to make a formidable contribution to blues lore. Dubbed “the most unsung guitarist in blues history” by Trix Record owner Pete Lowry, Lockwood played a significant role in the creation of the electric blues sound of Chicago, which had its roots in the acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta. As a studio musician in the 1950s, he accompanied such prominent bluesmen as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. And, “the fact that he was a house guitarist in Chicago,” Lowry explained in the Plain Dealer, “makes him the most influential guitarist in rock ’n’ roll history, too.” A number of songs that Lockwood recorded during that era were resurrected by 1970s rock groups such as the Who and the Allman Brothers Band, and more than one rock guitarist has drawn inspiration from his virtuosity.
Born in the rural town of Marvel, Arkansas, in 1915, Robert Jr. Lockwood learned to play the blues on the sly. “I had two cousins who could play,” he told Living Blues, “and I learned how to play from them ... when my grandfather was gone ... ’cause he was a preacher. I liked the blues and was playing them on the organ.”
When celebrated bluesman Robert Johnson turned up at his mother’s door, the young Lockwood found an extraordinary mentor. “He followed my momma home,” Lockwood explained. “That’s how I first met him, followed my momma home. And she couldn’t get rid of him. He wouldn’t leave. He hung around there and hung around there. And he and my momma stayed together off and on for ten years.” In fact, Johnson is considered by many to have been Lockwood’s stepfather.
It was from Johnson that Lockwood learned to create the mournful sound of the acoustic guitar of the Mississippi Delta. An avid student, he received personalized instruction from the usually secretive bluesman and practiced diligently when Johnson was on the road. “He taught me how to play,” Lockwood told the Plain Dealer. “I really appreciate that. ... He didn’t like people to fool with his instrument. [But] he didn’t seem to mind me fooling with it.”
Lockwood’s efforts were well rewarded. By 1930 he was performing locally on street corners and at house parties and by 1931 had teamed up with harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, with whom he toured the Mississippi Delta. When the musicians parted ways in the late 1930s, Lockwood continued on his own, settling briefly in Chicago, where he made his first recordings, “Little Boy Blue, Take a Little Walk With Me” and “Save My Baby,” on the RCA Victor label.
Born March 27, 1915, in Marvel, AR; son of Robert Lockwood and Esther Reese; wife’s name, Annie; children: two. Education: Studied acoustic guitar with Robert Johnson.
Performed on street comers and at house parties, late 1920s; teamed with singer and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, beginning in 1931; featured on Helena, AR, radio programs King Biscuit Time, 1941-43, and Mother’s Best Flour Hour, 1943-44; studio guitarist, Chicago, late 1940s and 1950s; worked briefly as chauffeur and nightclub manager, 1960s; founded record label Lockwood’s Records, 1990.
Addresses: Booking agent —Concerted Efforts, P.O. Box 99, Newtonville, MA 02160.
By 1941 Lockwood had returned to Arkansas and resumed his partnership with Williamson, then the feature attraction on the daily 15-minute radio program King Biscuit Time. Lockwood joined the show and brought drummer James Curtis with him. King Biscuit Time served as a base from which the trio could gain exposure, broadcasting throughout the area and advertising upcoming performances. “We played different places,” Lockwood said. “We used to go to little cities, play 30 minutes, 15 minutes, and stuff like that. Go to another one, come back home and then go to work.”
After two years on King Biscuit Time, Lockwood became restless. When he was contacted by King Biscuits competitor, Mother’s Best Flour Hour, he agreed to join the show. The Flour Hour was part of a network of radio shows broadcast throughout the United States. That affiliation allowed Lockwood to expand his musical horizons and venture into jazz. “When I left King Biscuit Time,” he told Living Blues, “I got a band. I had a jazz outfit. I had the Starkey Brothers. I had six pieces, sometimes seven. We played blues, too. We played a lot—all mixed up.” The effect of Lockwood’s jazz training would later be felt in the subtle guitar work and sophisticated chord changes that characterize his blues recordings.
In the mid-1940s Lockwood left Mother’s Best Flour Hourto go to Chicago, where the blues scene was just heating up. A musical chameleon, he quickly mastered the electrified urban sound and was soon in demand as a studio guitarist. “I tried to play what fit people, you know, instead of playing just what I wanted to play,” he commented in the Plain Dealer. “I tried to play what makes them comfortable, what makes the record tasty. Ninety percent of the musicians play different because they’re different people. [Little] Walter had a swinging style of harmonica, Sonny Boy [Williamson] had a blues style.”
During his 17 years as a studio musician, Lockwood left his mark on Chicago’s blues, accompanying almost every major bluesman to record there. In addition to playing as a core session man for Chess Records, he recorded on numerous other labels, including Mercury, Checker, and Decca. “I done recorded [with] a lot of people—can’t think of their names. Can’t think of all of them,” he reminisced in Living Blues. “I played with Curtis Jones, I played with Son House, and I played with Little Walter. ... I played with Willie Mabon. I played with Roosevelt Sykes. I played with Eddie Boyd on Cadillac Baby’s label. And on Freddie King’s first session.” Because he was in such great demand as a studio guitarist, Lockwood played a significant role in the refinement of the electric sound that characterized the urban blues of the 1950s.
In 1961 Lockwood moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to join Sonny Boy Williamson, who had set up shop there. “I came to stay awhile, short while,” he told the Plain Dealer. But when Williamson took off, Lockwood found that he’d sprouted roots. “I kind of retired for a while,” he recalled. “I didn’t do too much playing when I first came here.” Following a stint as a chauffeur, and later as a nightclub manager, Lockwood returned to the blues.
In the late 1970s Lockwood joined forces with Johnny Shines, Robert Johnson’s partner of a half century earlier. Together, they cut two albums on the Rounder label, Hangin’ On and Mr. Blues Is Back to Stay. By 1990 it had become clear that “Mr. Blues was back to stay.” That year, Lockwood underscored his commitment to his blues career when he cut What’s the Score, his first album on his own Lockwood’s Records label. Since then, he has recorded two albums dedicated to the music of his mentor, Robert Johnson.
Steady Rollin’ Man, Delmark, 1973.
(Contributor) Otis Spann, Walking the Blues, Candid, 1989.
Hangin’ On, Rounder, 1980.
Mr. Blues Is Back to Stay, Rounder, 1980.
What’s the Score, Lockwood’s Records, 1990.
Roots of Rhythm and Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era, Columbia, 1992.
(Contributor) Spann and Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Complete Candid Otis Spann/Lightnin’ Hopkins Sessions, Mosaic, 1992.
Plays Robert and Robert, reissued, Evidence, 1993.
Johnny Shines & Robert Lockwood, JOB, reissued, Paula, 1993.
Downbeat, December 1989.
Boston Phoenix, September 2, 1986.
Guitar Player, July 1991.
Living Blues, March/April 1990.
Nation, April 11, 1987.
New York Times, February 20, 1986.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), November 24, 1991.
Rolling Stone, October 1, 1992.
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