The short list of living blues legends became shorter Tuesday, November 21st with the passing of Robert Lockwood Jr. of complications from a stroke suffered earlier in the month. At 91 and still performing up to the time of the stroke, Lockwood was a member of a small cadre of over-90-year-old still-active legends, including James "Honeybo" Edwards, also 91, and piano legend Pinetop Perkins, 93. Most elder blues artists of their age coming from the Delta south had a passing encounter with uberlegend Robert Johnson, but none could claim the relationship Lockwood had. Johnson was the young Lockwood's stepfather for ten years.
Lockwood's blues odyssey began in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas in 1915. Robert Johnson lived with Lockwood's mother in Helena, Arkansas and taught the boy guitar basics at age 11. Young Robert already demonstrated musical talent, having played the pump organ since about eight years old. By age 15, he was playing professionally with Johnson, young Johnny Shines, and Rice Miller (AKA the second Sonny Boy Williamson). He followed the path so many blues players of the era did, matriculating from street corners to bars, playing at fish fries, always honing his guitar style. Eventually the developing artist would pass on skills and influence to other younger players such as B.B. King, Luther Tucker, and Louis Myers.
The path inevitably led to Chicago, where his recording career began in 1941 for the Bluebird label. (Over the decades he recorded for numerous labels; his Telarc label release of '02, Delta Crossroads, won a W.C. Handy Award and was a Grammy nominee.) Lockwood also worked as a sideman for Little Walter and the Jukes. Their early '50s sound electrified and powered up urban blues (along with other modernists of the time, such as Johnny "Guitar" Watson with his cutting-edge instrumental "Space Guitar", bringing it along out of the post-war era into the Cold War era. Lockwood eventually occasionally formed his own bands (a notable effort was his co-fronting a band with the late Johnny Shines in the '80s).
Lockwood was a rare broader-based player, stylistically eclectic in his embracing of jazz and country sounds, not unlike the late Matt Murphy, who he mentored, and the unique underrated Earl Hooker, who played the first double-necked 6- and 12-string guitar. It was this energy to evolve that led Lockwood to pretty much abandon six-string guitar and move to the 12-string electric in the '70s, after his wife bought him one as a gift. His smooth riffs flow especially nicely on the 12-string. In the '60s he left Chicago, settling in Cleveland and remaining based there until his death. He toured the world either playing electric 12-string with long-time bassist Gene Schwarz, or bringing the real deal to audiences with his eight-piece band.
The curmudgeonly, enigmatic Lockwood was more outspoken than the average blues guitarist interviewee: "I play for myself. Some people say that's selfish, but who else is going to know if I'm playing well?" Once, asked if one had to live the blues to sing it, he replied "No, if you lived the blues, you'd be dead."
Robert Lockwood Jr. is survived by a dwindling number of unique aged but active greats and a small number of slightly younger players who came out of the fertile blues birthing grounds in the Delta. These artists who shaped, nurtured, brought, and still bring this American art form to the world ought not to be taken for granted. While the torch has been passed to younger, enthusiastic and competent latter-day players, there's nothing like the real thing. R.I.P. Jr. - Tali Madden
Mr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.