Robert Lockwood Jr.

December 1, 2006

Robert Lockwood Jr., who died last week at the age of 91, had the honor and the aggravation of serving as a living double-crossroads of the blues.

The Arkansas native, whose intricate guitar style was a direct influence on B.B. King, was the only player known to have been taught personally by the legendary Robert Johnson. He was also the favored sideman of Alec “Rice” Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, whose “King Biscuit Time” radio broadcasts made him something of a blues superstar. When Williamson and Lockwood headed north to Chicago, Lockwood’s playing became the cornerstone of numerous singles recorded by Chess Records.

Lockwood had a reputation for arrogance that was remarkable even in a field dominated by prickly personalities. Part of it was probably exasperation at being treated like the keeper of Johnson’s flame, forced to tell an endless parade of credulous blues fans and journalists that no, Robert Johnson did not become a great musician by going to a crossroads and cutting a deal with the devil. Enough of that kind of hoodoo nonsense and you too would lock the front door whenever you saw some nervous-looking acolyte come toddling up the front walk. Martin Scorsese might proclaim, with epic vacuousness, that Johnson “only existed on his records. He was pure legend.” But Lockwood knew better, and had little patience with those who didn’t.

Lockwood was also proud of his musicianship, and made no bones about the fact that he considered himself several steps above the average run of blues guitarists. With his jazz chops and elegant playing he was probably right.

Born March 27, 1915 in the Arkansas hamlet of Turkey Scratch, Lockwood came under the tutelage of Robert Johnson while Johnson was paying court to his mother. He quickly mastered Johnson’s guitar style and could apparently switch it on and off at will as he explored more sophisticated modes of playing. Their relationship was competitive but close, so close that Johnson’s untimely death in 1938 left him unable to play the guitar for over a year. “Everything I played would remind me of Robert,” Lockwood told scholar and critic Robert Palmer in the book Deep Blues, “and whenever I tried to play, I would just come down in tears.” The two were so closely identified that other musicians gave Lockwood the nickname “Robert Junior,” and when he began recording, some of his signature tunes — notably “Take a LIttle Walk With Me” and “Little Boy Blue” — were widely assumed to be unrecorded Johnson originals that Lockwood had appropriated.

Lockwood was an impeccable sideman, capable of blending into any ensemble and quietly reinforcing the sound, but his solo recordings can sound almost anonymous, particularly on later records like I Got to Find Me a Woman, where his stately style and laid-back playing frequently tip over into the somnolent. The two albums he recorded for Trix in the mid-1970s show him at his best: the tunes may not ignite, but he keeps them at a steady simmer, and fans of Eric Clapton’s restrained bluesmanship will find plenty to like and admire.

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