Memories of Robert Lockwood

Posted on: Saturday, Nov 25, 2006

From ‘fessor Mojo…

His name was Robert Lockwood Jr. after his father and he always insisted that Robert Lockwood Jr. was the way he wanted to be addressed or placed on the bill because that was his proper name.

He was named after his father Robert Lockwood although he barely knew him. Others insisted on referring to him affectionately as “Robert Jr.” due to the fact he was not only the stepson (Johnson lived with his mother and him from the early 1930s until the time of his death) of blues legend Robert Johnson and the only man who Robert Johnson ever taught personally to play his music and his unique guitar style but the man who carried his torch and performed Robert Johnson’s music frequently.

He first recorded in 1941 alone and with Dr. Clayton’s band for Okeh and then not again until 1949 for Mercury after he had figured out how the business worked. However during the 1940s he encouraged Muddy Waters and others to record several of the Robert Johnson songs, thus keeping the Johnson catalog alive. It’s hard to remember how short Johnson’s recording career was. By December 1938 only six of his 78s were in the RCA catalog.

More importantly, Robert Jr. was the band leader in the Chess studios and serve as band leader for Eddie Boyd, Little Walter (“My Babe”) and Jimmy Rogers (“Walking By Myself” which Robert wrote) and also first played with Sonny Boy Williamson before at the beginning of the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA in Helena Arkansas. Robert Jr. and Sonny Boy II were playing electric blues through car radios and juke boxes in the delta six years before Muddy Waters owned an electric guitar. Reunited in the Chess Studios with Sonny Boy, he was featured on Sonny Boy’s hits “Keep It To Yourself,” “Fattening Frogs For Snakes.” “Cross My Heart” and “Born Blind (“Eyesight to the blind” remake),” “Your funeral and my trial,” “Wake Up Baby” and others.His move to Cleveland (on a planned trip to New York which never materialized after he met his first wife Annie) in the early 1960s put an end to his Chess careers.

For a time in the 1960s he drove a delivery truck for a drug store in Cleveland because the Beatles and British artists whose music he inspired had basically put an end to the blues in America. His career was restarted several times and was flourishing in recent years. He was a hard-working performer respected by the many blues musicians who visited “the master” when they came through Cleveland OH, a sound and savvy businessman and a good husband to his last wife Mary who obviously loved him for a very long time. I had the pleasure to come to Sunday dinner with Robert Jr., Mary and their large family whose hospitality and cooking was legendary.

One of my favorite stories he told me was about that time he was delivering prescriptions to a black family in a predominantly white building. The young boy living there was complaining that every time he got into the pool the white boys got out and wouldn’t play with him. Robert Jr. thought for a minute and told the boy, “Next time you go to the pool, just get in the pool and stay there. They’ll come in with you eventually.” A couple of days later the boy had applied Robert Jr.’s strategy and sure enough, it worked. Robert Jr. didn’t complain, he just quietly asserted his human rights and got things done. His dignity shone throughout his life.

I met him when I was working on a biography of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex “Rice” Miller”). I knew that without Robert’s input, there would be a huge gap in Sonny Boy’s story. Seeking an interview, I encountered a quoted fee for an interview well outside my budget. I didn’t give up and talked with him informally on several occasions. Four years later his son called me out of the blue and said “Dad wants you to write his biography.” A few weeks later, I read the draft of Chapter 1 to Robert Jr. in his hotel room in Chicago. It was both a thrill and a very scary experience to read a blues legend the beginning of the story of his life the first time I met him. He only changed one word and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Over the next few years, I recorded about 30 hours of audio interviews in his Cleveland OH home and on two fateful days we visited five cities in the Mississippi Delta and videotaped Robert telling me his best stories in some of the cities where they happened. He had his custom cobalt blue electric twelve-string guitar with him and I was able to provide him with a portable amplifier lent by Morse Gist, owner of the music store in Helena. He loved the sound of the nine-battery amplifier and I arranged for him to receive it as his Christmas present from me that year. Other visits to Tunica MS, and Brinkley AR added new stories. His fondness for Robert Johnson (“He gave me my career.”) precluded visiting the then two supposed gravesites. Later when I discovered the real gravesite of Robert Johnson by finding the widow of the man who actually dug the grave, I called Robert to tell him where Robert was buried. His wife agreed with me the site at Little Zion Church outside on Greenwood MS made sense because the only way Johnson, a blues man, could have been buried in a church graveyard was with a sponsor and this church was very close to the plantation on which Sonny Boy II had grown up and
preached as “Reverend Blue” when he was a child. Surprisingly, Robert Jr. had never known where the mysterious Sonny Boy was from or that he had 20 siblings!

That trip we visited Turkey Scratch (where he was born) and found his schoolhouse from when he was five. I asked him the difference between living in Turkey Scratch and the larger city of Helena Arkansas to which he answered, “When I lived in Turkey Scratch, I got a beating if I got into a fight; when I lived in Helena I got a beating if I didn’t get into a fight!” Sitting in the hot Turkey Scratch sun he marveled at white people working the fields on a tractor as if he had never seen white people do that kind of work.

In Helena, later that day, he set up his guitar across the street from when the home he had grown up in back in the 1930s with Robert Johnson and played “Sweet Home Chicago” for us. When I complimented him on what a moving performance it was, he replied, “Don’t you understand? If it’s good it’s been here first.”

We traveled to Clarksdale MS where he found the bridge he had play on with Robert Johnson. The two arrived early one Saturday AM in 1936, split up and played Robert Johnson songs on both ends of the bridge. No one knew which the real Robert Johnson was. Robert Jr. came back within 40 cents of Robert Johnson. We set up Robert Jr. in the middle of the bridge on a 110 degree day. The Sunflower River was at low ebb and a lovely dark green which in the heat almost produced a water color-like background.

With only enough tape to record one more song, Robert suggested Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.” As he closed his eyes and drifted back to 1936 he sang, “Stop Breakin’ down, this stuff I got gonna break your mind,” his had slid to the top of the 12-string guitar’s neck and dropped effortlessly to ring three harmonics. It was one of those magical moments that I never saw him recreate as perfectly as that day. It almost gave us whiplash as we quietly marveled at his skill and feeling. He opened his eyes to see three little schoolgirls who had walked buy and witnessed the moment.

Robert Jr. was an amazing musician who had never descended into drugs or booze as did so many bluesmen. He was a dignified ultimate professional. “They called me Mr. Lockwood” in Helena Arkansas back in the 1930s when blacks were often called “boy” and expected to step off the curb to make way for a while person.

He had a dry sense of humor. When Johnson would teach him a guitar lick, he would often describe his reaction as “I was on that like a duck on a bug.” When flying back from Europe time the plane hit an air pocket and dropped in altitude, “It got so quiet,” he told me, “You could hear the saints piss on cotton.”

Until the very end at age 91, this blues legend was playing new licks on old tunes. He never got into the popular trends like slide guitar or playing like Buddy Guy or B. B. King as so many do to please the audience. He stuck with his 12-string electric like the one which his late wife Annie bought him. He seldom told his story between songs as others might have. He just played them in his unique way in his unique timeless guitar style.

With Robert Townsend passing recently only Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James, and Pinetop Perkins remain from the legendary “Class of 1915.” The world is losing the first person contact with the early days of the blues.

He was much more than a relic of another time and place, he was a man of great dignity and a quiet role model for all of us..

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