Leader Blues

Saturday, November 25, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>Robert Junior Lockwood, RIP

Robert Junior Lockwood, the last of the great Arkansas Delta bluesmen, died this week in Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 91 after suffering a stroke earlier this month.

He was the last link to pre-war Arkansas blues. He started playing in the 1930s, after learning from perhaps the greatest Delta musician of all time: Robert Johnson, who was dating Lockwood’s mother in Helena.

Lockwood was a great pupil — the student may have surpassed the master as a guitar player.

Back then, Helena was a wide-open town, as they say, and Lockwood never lacked work: He’d play in clubs and on streetcorners in Arkansas and neighboring states, then head to St. Louis and Chicago, back to Memphis and Arkansas again, before finally settling in Cleveland, where he worked a weekly gig until a few weeks before he died.

He played every year at the Helena blues festival since it started in 1986. He’d sit on the right side of the outdoor stage while his band played in the middle and on the left. Lockwood hardly ever said anything. He was all business: He played his guitar like a jazz musician, and if you stood right in front of the stage, as I did over the years, you noticed the dexterity of his fingers: Lockwood was a great guitarist, perhaps the best in the country, according to his bassist, who played with him for 30 years.

The only time I saw Lockwood smile, sort of, was when we ran into him at the Delta Heritage Center in Helena last year, and I told him he was a better guitar player than the late, great Wes Montgomery. Lockwood was 90 then, and he paused and cracked a little smile and said he knew he was better than Montgomery.
“I have more degrees than he does,” Lockwood said.

He must have meant honorary degrees, because he probably didn’t get much schooling in Turkey Scratch (near Marvell in Phillips County), where he was born in 1915. His mother later moved to Helena, where she met Robert Johnson, who not only taught young Lockwood, but they played occasionally together in the Delta.

(Like many bluesmen, Lockwood and Johnson were both part Indian, and so is Honeyboy Edwards, also 91, who’s still performing.)

Lockwood appeared on two blues programs on KFFA in Helena in the 1940s (King Biscuit and Mother’s Best Flour were the sponsors) and later on KXLR in Little Rock.

Pinetop Perkins, another nonagenarian, is the only other surviving musician from those KFFA days, although disc jockey Sunshine Sonny Payne, who joined the station later, is still on the air and appears at the blues festival, along with Pinetop.
We’d catch them just about every year down in Helena. Lockwood and his band played at the same time every year — late in the afternoon — although musicians say the guitar sounds better outdoors after sundown. But Lockwood sounded good anytime.

He looked frail last month, but he sang the most moving song we’d heard at the festival since we started attending: Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” (The second-best performance: Otis Rush a couple of years ago before his stroke.)
Lockwood sang “Love in Vain” as if he knew this would be his last appearance in Helena. It’s a mournful song, popularized by Eric Clapton, but Lockwood learned it from the master, and he must have thought of him and his mother, too, when he sang it for the last time in Helena:

And I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand.
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell when all your love’s in vain.
All my love’s in vain.
When the train rolled into the station and I looked her in the eyes.
Well, I was lonesome. I felt so lonesome and I could not help but cry.
All my love’s in vain.
When the train left the station with two lights on behind.
Well, the blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind.
All my love’s in vain.

You can hear “Love in Vain” on Lockwood’s “Delta Crossroads” CD from Telarc.

Although he recorded in the 1940s and 1950s, he did not do an LP as a leader until 1970, when he was in his mid-50s: “Steady Rollin’ Man” from Delmark is 40 minutes of perfection.

He made several more records in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, including “Live in Japan” with the Myers brothers on Delmark, the “Complete Trix Recordings” and “I Got to Find Me a Woman” on Verve, but for someone who performed for 70 years, his output wasn’t huge.

Part of the reason may have been Lockwood’s stubbornness: He would not play with second-rate musicians, and he was tired of being ripped off by record companies.

He influenced generations of younger musicians, including B.B. King and people you probably never heard of (such as his bassist Gene Schwartz and his brother, Glenn, whom Lockwood considered the best white guitar player in America).
Robert Lockwood lived a full life. He traveled the world, not bad for a fellow from Turkey Scratch.

His music lives on, not just on his records, because there’s still plenty of genuine blues played all over the country.
If you’re hankering for some blues tonight, head for Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., where you can catch the great Big Jack Johnson.

Tell him to play one in Robert Lockwood’s memory. He probably will.