Robert Lockwood Jnr

Disciple of the Delta blues


Robert Lockwood, guitarist and singer: born Turkey Scratch, Arkansas 27 March 1915; married first Annie Roberts (died 1997), second Mary Smith; died Cleveland, Ohio 21 November 2006.

One of the last links with the golden age of the pre-war Delta blues, Robert Lockwood Jnr was an accomplished musician who built upon the legacy of his "stepfather", the guitarist and singer Robert Johnson, by adding jazz-influenced chords and Charlie Christian-like single-string solos to his playing. His musical journey, over the course of a career of more than 70 years, mirrored that of the genre itself as it moved up out of the Delta, through Memphis and St Louis, and on into Chicago and beyond.

Lockwood was born in the farming hamlet of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, in 1915. His first musical experiences came courtesy of the family's pump organ, but the regular presence of his mother Esther's boyfriend, Robert Johnson, inevitably led to Lockwood's taking up the guitar. He remembered his mentor as a secretive musician who was reluctant to pass on his skills, but he picked up enough from the older man to hold his own comfortably when they worked together. In deference to their close relationship, he at one point changed his name to Robert Jnr Lockwood.

By the time he was 15 he was a regular fixture at local juke joints and fish fries alongside Johnson, Johnny Shines and the harmonica virtuoso Rice Miller, who would later go on to find fame as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Lockwood continued to hone his skills as he travelled to cities such as Memphis, St Louis and Chicago and, in 1941, in Aurora, Illinois, cut four solo sides for the Bluebird label, including "Take a Little Walk With Me" and "Little Boy Blue".

In the same year he returned to Arkansas and played with Williamson on the seminal radio show King Biscuit Time on KFFA, Helena. Sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, the midday show gave the blues its first daily radio outlet and was a catalyst in the electrification of the music as it moved north to Chicago. The programmes also enabled Lockwood further to establish himself in Memphis, where he met and encouraged the young BB King.

By the early 1950s Lockwood was based in Chicago, where he became a mainstay at Chess Records and contributed guitar work for the label's many stars, including Muddy Waters, Eddie Boyd, Little Walter Jacobs and his old friend Sonny Boy Williamson II. He also cut a handful of singles, including "I'm Gonna Dig Myself a Hole" (1951) and "Sweet Woman from Maine" (1955), though they enjoyed only limited success.

By the end of the decade the impact of rock'n'roll was such that he felt it necessary to move and in 1961 he relocated to Cleveland. Lockwood played whenever and wherever he could and, at his wife's suggestion, switched from the six-string to the 12-string guitar. In 1970 he recorded his first solo album, Steady Rollin' Man, which featured the Myers brothers, Louis and Dave, and the former Chess drummer Fred Below, and was followed by a pair of albums cut in association with the musicologist Pete Lowry: Contrasts (1972) and Does 12 (1975).

In 1980 Lockwood reunited with a fellow Johnson disciple, Johnny Shines, for an acclaimed album, Hangin' On. I Got to Find Me a Woman (1997) gained him a Grammy nomination and was followed, two years later, by another Grammy-nominated project, Delta Crossroads.

Lockwood continued to tour well into his ninth decade and in 2004 released an in-concert album, The Legend Live.

Paul Wadey

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