Ask a blues guitarist to name some of the people who've influenced his playing and probably eight out of 10 will mention Robert Johnson, the legendary figure whose chilling tales and emotional guitar style came to define the sound now known as Mississippi Delta blues. However, only Robert Jr. Lockwood can lay claim to having had Johnson as a full-time teacher.
Lockwood, who will be leading a group of veteran blues musicians at Friendship Station tomorrow night, grew up on a large and profitable farm his grandfather owned near Marvell, Ark., in the 1920s. His mother lived in Helena, where she met Johnson and the two later lived together. To this day, Johnson's life is shrouded in mystery. He didn't begin to record until the mid-'30s, and within a few years he was dead, poisoned by a spurned lover, according to most accounts. Described by some as shy and introverted, by others as a reckless womanizer, he had a profound impact on the popularity and development of rural blues.
Lockwood speaks slowly and somewhat reluctantly of Johnson now, obviously tired of the questions that have pursued him since Johnson's death in 1938, but he remembers him as a friendly and helpful man, a remarkable guitarist "who could play and sing everything he heard -- blues, ballads, country yodeling, everything."
The two first met in 1928, when Lockwood was 13. He recalls he was so impressed with what Johnson could do on the guitar that he lost interest in playing his grandfather's pump organ. After all, he says, "You can't pack up a piano and play around the country the way we did with our guitars." Johnson showed Lockwood a few chord changes, and in no time the pupil was borrowing the teacher's instrument when he wasn't looking. "He wasn't happy about that," says Lockwood, "but eventually he saw how quickly I was catching on."
Soon Johnson and Lockwood were traveling around the South, "making as much as $100 a night" playing on street corners or at picnics and juke joints. Lockwood would play rhythm guitar as Johnson sang "in a high, sweet voice" and accompanied himself on guitar. "He was already famous, a legend even before his records came out, so people really wanted to hear us play," says Lockwood.
When Lockwood wasn't on the road performing blues, he spent a lot of time absorbing a different kind of music -- jazz. "I'd listen to all the big bands -- Ellington, Basie, Woody Herman -- all of them. I was never really interested in hearing the guitar players. In fact, I never even heard of Charlie Christian until long after he was dead."
Lockwood's interest in jazz would exert a strong influence on his own music. Rather than mimic Johnson's raw and visceral blues, he developed a more sophisticated sense of harmony and melody, a jazzier style based on single note runs and extended chord progressions that served him well when he recorded on his own after Johnson's death. (Even so, because of his association with Johnson, Lockwood became known as Robert Jr. Lockwood rather than by his real name, Robert Lockwood Jr.)
His first encounter with recordings was both brief and revealing. "I went to Chicago in 1940 and recorded four sides for RCA," he recalls. "They did real well, but I didn't see any money from it. If you had one of these records today -- 'Take a Little Walk with Me' or 'Little Boy Blue' -- you could get $150 for it."
Back in Helena, he was recruited by the great harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson to play on the now-fabled "King Biscuit Time," broadcast over KFFA radio. "That's right, we were the first ones to play amplified blues over the radio," Lockwood says. "We didn't get paid much for it, but we were making plenty of money playing just about everywhere anyway." The show was a great success, turning Williamson and Lockwood into household names throughout the rural South.
Eventually Lockwood returned to Chicago, where he became a popular session guitarist for a number of blues labels, including Chess. He recorded with Muddy Waters and countless other musicians in the '50s, and at one point even served as a band leader for Little Walter and Eddie Boyd. Some of his finest moments on recordings, though, have come in the past few years. His albums on the Rounder label with guitarist Johnny Shines (another friend of Johnson) rank among the most imaginative and progressive blues releases in recent memory.
Lockwood will be performing tonight with an all-star group: harmonica player and vocalist Blind Sam Myers, drummer Theotis Morgan and bassist Lonnie Pitchford. "We spent several months playing down in New Orleans at the world's fair, and people really seemed to enjoy it," says Lockwood. "I may even take some of these guys to Japan when I go there next month. The Japanese are great audiences when it comes to the blues."
Now what would Robert Johnson think of that?