Lockwood carries the blood of the blues in his guitar style

April 22, 1994|By Larry Hoffman | Larry Hoffman,Special to The Sun

Jazz crowns its stars "King," "Count," "Duke" and "Lady," but the blues often doles out titles of diminution to its favorite sons -- "Sonny Boy," "Little," "Junior" and "Shorty."

Robert Lockwood is no exception. He's called "Robert Junior" after his legendary mentor and stepfather, Robert Johnson.

Johnson, the Delta blues icon, had a significant influence on Mr. Lockwood's career (although, in fact, he inherited the "Junior" moniker from his biological father).

"Robert Johnson was my teacher. He was my mother's 'old man' for 10 years," he said of those years in Arkansas. "I am the only person he taught, and he didn't want to be bothered with teaching me. Robert didn't want to be bothered with nobody! But hearing Robert play made me switch from piano to guitar."

It's in recognition of Mr. Lockwood's blues career that he was asked to perform for the Smithsonian's Resident Artists Program tonight.

"Mr. Lockwood was asked to perform because of his preeminence in the field," said Penny Dann, program manager. The guitarist is cited for having a major influence on the careers of a variety of blues luminaries, including B. B. King and Muddy Waters.

"We present six to eight performances of all kinds each month -- from composer/minimalist Philip Glass to bluegrass banjoist Ralph Stanley and jazz stylist Bobby Short," said Ms. Dann.

The blues career of Mr. Lockwood, now 79, took off in the 1930s when he started playing with Rice Miller -- widely known as Sonny Boy Williamson. A singer/harmonica player/songwriter from Glendora, Miss., Williamson was a major influence throughout his career.

Around 1939, Mr. Lockwood went to Chicago to record for Bluebird Records; the session produced two singles. "I had never heard the [first] record till I went back down South in 1941. I heard it for the first time down South -- on a jukebox in Tunica, Miss."

Hooking up once again with Sonny Boy Williamson, in 1941, they made blues history on KFFA's pioneering King Biscuit Time radio program. The King Biscuit show broadcast 30 minutes of live blues daily from Helena, Ark., every day. Its importance to blues has been compared to that of the Grand Ole Opry to country music.

"Sonny Boy was the one who had King Biscuit Time just before I got to Helena," recalled Mr. Lockwood. "When I got there, I found Sonny Boy and he was happy . . . that he seen me. Why, he'd have some help! It was just Sonny Boy and me on the first King Biscuit show.

"Back in those days, Helena was poppin'. It was wide open -- just like Las Vegas. Now they got some casinos back there again. My wife's gonna spend all my money when we get back there for [The King Biscuit Festival] in October."

While playing the blues was Mr. Lockwood's forte, he developed a jazzy guitar style on the side, playing in a quartet with a piano and two horns. "That was my first band," he recalled. "I always listened to horns -- to guys like Louis Jordan. My method has always been to try to be a musician . . . to play anything. So I was playin' all of it all the time . . . as much as I could learn about whatever it was I was learnin'."

He traveled the well-worn path of many Delta musicians, making a stopover in Memphis in the late '40s -- crowned by a stint with the B. B. King Beale Streeters.

Arriving in Chicago in 1946, Mr. Lockwood enjoyed an illustrious tenure there, becoming a much sought-after sideman during the classic era of postwar Chicago blues. His jazzy fills, chordal backgrounds and florid solos graced the live jobs and recorded tracks of such blues immortals as Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Roosevelt Sykes.

In 1960 -- "by accident" -- Mr. Lockwood moved to Cleveland, where he still lives. "Sonny Boy Williamson was living there, and I went to Cleveland to play with him a little bit. I was tellin' myself I was goin' to New York, but I didn't get no further." In the ensuing years, Mr. Lockwood has enjoyed a growing club and festival audience at home and abroad. He has recorded several albums for a variety of labels but now has achieved both artistic and entrepreneurial control of his music.

Mr. Lockwood records for his own label, Lockwood Records, which sells via mail-order (7203 Lawnview Ave., Cleveland, Ohio 44103). In stock now is "What's the Score." A new recording is in the works.

BASK IN THE BLUES

Who: Robert Lockwood

When: Tonight at 7:30

Where: Baird Auditorium, Museum of Natural History, 10th St. and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington

Tickets: $16 general admission; $8 for full-time students; $12 for Smithsonian Associates Members

Call: (202) 357-3030

Hear: To hear excerpts from "What's the Score?" call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800; Anne Arundel County, 268-7736; Harford County, 836-5028; Carroll County, 848-0338. With a touch-tone phone, punch 6157 after the greeting.

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