Robert Lockwood Jr. Expanded The Spectrum of the Blues

"If you lived the blues, you'd be dead": The giant of Delta and Chicago blues dazzled audiences with a fingerpicking style with origins in the 1920s and 1930s, when a guitar could be the entire band. (By Lonnie Timmons Iii -- The Plain Dealer)
By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

I once asked the great bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr., who died Tuesday at age 91, for guitar lessons. It was 1986. I was 25, and it took all of my youthful gumption to do it. A few minutes earlier, I had just witnessed Lockwood dismissing a man who requested an interview.

"I've been recording since 1941," he said. "I don't need the publicity."

On that summer day, Lockwood was standing in the hot sun beside an outdoor concert stage at the Prince George's Equestrian Center; a chain-link fence separated him from his fans. I told Lockwood that I wanted to learn to fingerpick. I had family in Toledo and could drive out to his home in Cleveland to take lessons. Did he ever give guitar lessons?

"Sure, I've taught guitar. I taught Louis Myers, Luther Tucker, M.T. Murphy, B.B. King," he said, managing to give me the polite brushoff and establish his credentials at the same time.

"Tell you what," he said. "You go to a music store and learn classical guitar. Then you can play any type of music."

I was dumbstruck. Classical guitar? That suggestion could have come directly from my mother's mouth. It seemed a world apart from Lockwood's own background, but he always liked to defy expectations.

Among the giants of Delta and Chicago blues, Robert Lockwood Jr. may have been the last of the greats, having outlived Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and John Lee Hooker.

He learned at age 11 directly from the itinerant blues singer Robert Johnson, who had become romantically involved with Lockwood's widowed mother in Helena, Ark. By 15, Lockwood was playing juke joints and fish fries throughout Mississippi and Arkansas with Johnson.

One legend from those days has him playing a fish fry on one side of the Sunflower River, with Johnson on the other bank. The audience could not tell which guitarist was Johnson.

If Lockwood lacked the fame of Waters or Hooker, it was only because so much of his time was spent as a sideman for other blues singers. Until the late 1970s, his recordings as a singer and bandleader were sporadic.

Lockwood rightly considered himself an innovator. His 1950s recordings as the guitarist for Little Walter and the Jukes created an entirely new sound, bridging the gap between country blues and urban jump blues. Little Walter's amplified harp would fill a room with dazzling swing riffs that Lockwood would answer with sliding jazz chords and quick fills. Drummer Fred Below propelled the band by dropping bombs -- snare accents on the off beat -- while second guitarist Louis Myers added his steadying touch substituting for a string bassist. On the strength of such recordings as "My Babe" and "Off the Wall," they toured the country and played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

In later years, Lockwood became a mainstay of blues festivals. I've lost count of how many times I saw him perform (at least a dozen) but every time I watched his fretwork with awe and envy.

Performing as a soloist, Lockwood could take apart a classic piano piece like "Cow Cow Blues" or "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" and flawlessly re-create both the left- and right-hand parts on the guitar. It was an approach that harked back to such greats of the 1920s and 1930s as Big Bill Broonzy and Hacksaw Harney -- an era when the guitar or the piano could be the entire band. At this type of fingerpicking, Lockwood was the last master of his generation.

Question-and-answer sessions often followed performances at festivals, and at one, a long-haired fan in a tie-dye shirt and jeans asked him if you had to live the blues to sing it.

"No," he answered, then paused. "If you lived the blues, you'd be dead."

It was a typical Lockwood response: witty and laconic. Most of his audiences were a generation, a race and a world removed from his and Robert Johnson's experience as impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South. If Lockwood seemed happiest playing Johnson's music, he often felt obligated to tell these earnest new fans that Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads, as myth had it.

As an admirer of Chet Atkins, Lockwood often played a Gretsch Country Gentleman, an electric guitar that carried Atkins's endorsement. In the 1970s, he started playing a 12-string model with a very bright tone -- an odd choice for a blues guitarist, but one that probably suited his deep-seated desire to play against the audience's expectations.

In fact, if you ever asked him, Lockwood would tell you that he considered himself a jazz guitarist. He threw in an occasional bebop chord substitution and drove the band with an unerring sense of swing. But it was still blues.

Some years after I approached Lockwood about guitar lessons, I found myself in Cleveland playing a wedding gig as guitarist for the Uptown Rhythm Kings. The people were wealthy enough to have two bands on the bill; the Lockwood Allstars were the other band. The reception was in one of those old private clubs with cloth hand towels in the restrooms and beautiful wood furniture that had begun to chip around the edges.

Our band arrived after a six-hour drive from Baltimore, and we were shown to one of two conference rooms that were to serve as makeshift dressing rooms. Lockwood arrived with his wife, Annie. She took one look at our singer Eric Sheridan catnapping on the floor and a pile of suit bags strewn across the conference table.

"Where's the dressing room?" she asked. Always one to protect her husband's interests, she was clearly ready to make a scene. But Lockwood grasped that we had come a long way to do a job and he didn't want to wake our sleeping singer.

"Leave it lay, Annie, leave it lay," he said.

Then he looked at me and jokingly asked if I could give him guitar lessons. My idol remembered me from that day years ago.

I never did heed Lockwood's advice to take classical lessons, though. The best lessons were watching the master play his blues.

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