Robert Lockwood Jr.
By Colin Dussault
On "Watch This", our 8th compact disc which was released on December 1, 2005, I had the good fortune and incredible honor of having Internationally recognized blues legend Robert Lockwood Jr. play guitar on a song that I wrote about him. With that in mind I would like to briefly share his story and the story of how I got to know him and of the recording session that found him appearing on my disc.
Born in 1915 in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, Robert Lockwood Jr. has spent nearly 80 years traveling the world with his guitar making some of the finest blues music around. In addition to being an accomplished guitarist and session man, Robert Lockwood Jr, also has the unique distinction of being one of the only guitarists to ever be taught by blues demi-god Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson dated Lockwood's mother and was considered Lockwood's "stepfather", thus the blues genius taught the young Lockwood how to play the guitar. Incredibly, the two pickers actually played some dates together before Johnson's untimely death at the hands of a jealous husband of a lover, on August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi.
One Robert Johnson story that Lockwood shared with me over a steak dinner and shots of Courvoisier cognac was about how he and Johnson stood on separate sides of a bridge that spanned the Sunflower River in Mississippi. The two bluesmen played guitar for several hours. When the day was done they had both made a "truckload of money". In fact, Lockwood laughs "the folks couldn't' tell if he was the real Robert Johnson or if I was. I played his music that well. I scared the shit out of him."
From sitting and learning at the feet of Robert Johnson in the family living room Lockwood went onto develop a unique jazz influenced style of his very own and began playing all around the deep south. He recorded sides for the Bluebird label in 1941 and also worked regularly with harmonica legend Rice Miller. Rice Miller is well known to blues fans as Sonny Boy Williamson During the 1940's Sonny Boy and Robert were on the radio appearing on the King Biscuit Flour Hour everyday at twelve noon. The show aired on WDIA in Helena Arkansas and granted the performers incredible exposure to huge radio audiences throughout the South. As a result of this show promoting King Biscuit Flour, Interstate Grocery and themselves, Lockwood and Sonny Boy became bona fide radio stars. Every day at noon workers would come in out of the fields, and sit down to eat lunch while tuning into the blues that were being laid down by Robert and Sonny Boy. In fact B.B. King, Little Milton and many other southern blues luminaries have talked about the influence that hearing Robert's playing on the radio had on them.
After his stint on the radio Robert made his way north to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago where he played guitar on live dates and recording sessions for Chess and other record labels. He played guitar with a who's who of blues royalty, recording and doing shows with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, the Moonglows, Jonhnny Shines, Eddie Boyd, Muddy Waters, Willie Mabon, Otis Span, Fred Below, Roosevelt Sykes, Louis Meyers and Willie Dixon. It is common knowledge that Robert even taught B.B. King how to play when a young B.B. (which stands for "Beale Street Blues Boy") was known around Memphis as Riley B. King. Lockwood actually declined an offer to join and lead B.B. Kings band opting instead to remain a sideman.
During the 1960's Robert came through Cleveland, Ohio with Sonny Boy Williamson to play some dates. Eventually, Sonny Boy left Cleveland but Lockwood stayed behind to raise a family and take a break from music.
In 1972 Robert appeared at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and once again began recording. He made records for Delmark and other labels and eventually started his own record label Lockwood Records, to facilitate the release of his own recordings. In 1999 Lockwood was nominated for a Grammy Award for his Verve Records release "Got to find me a Woman". His 2000 Telarc Records, release "Delta Crossroads' was also a Grammy contender.
In the late 1980's I used to sneak into Brother's Lounge to watch Robert and his band play. The band featured an incredible harp player named Wallace Coleman who plays in the style of Little Walter, Wallace has a great band working these days and information about him can be found by logging onto www.wallacecoleman.com.
Also in Lockwood's band at that time was guitarist Mark Hahn. Mark released a wonderful CD a few years back called "The Other Side of Midnight" This disc is one of my favorite CD's and is well worth seeking out if you can find it. Forgive my digression, but I wanted to give props to these two wonderful artists. As an aspiring musician I would sit in the audience at Brother's Lounge and watch as these masters of the blues did their thing. I was only 17 years old but within two years I would be fronting my own band trying to emulate the playing I had seen these professionals deliver on stage.
From the nights when I was underage and sneaking into Brothers Lounge to see Robert Lockwood Jr. and his band back in 1985 to the present day, Robert has always been very gracious and helpful to young musicians and fans like me.
ABOUT THE SONG: BLUES FOR ROBERT LOCKWOOD JR.
I wrote the song "Blues For Robert Lockwood Jr." in 1994 as an homage to the delta guitarist and blues legend. I recorded the tune in its original form on my "Live at Brother's Lounge" CD which was released in 1994. In 2005 the song made its way back into our set list after a night at Johnny's in Youngstown. We were in Y-town doing our regular Tuesday night gig when bassist Fred Tobey began playing a funk groove in the key of F sharp. The groove was happening so we all joined in and started jamming. It was too cool to let go and in an effort to keep it going I started singing the lyrics I had written about Robert Lockwood Jr nearly 10 years earlier. From there we started playing the song every night until we made it into the recording studio to lay it down for our 8th CD. The CD called "Watch This!" was recorded between October 2004 and November 2005 and was released on December 1, 2005. "Blues for Robert Lockwood Jr." is the first track on the disc and features very special guest Robert Lockwood Jr. on guitar!
Once the song was recorded I decided to roll the dice and ask Robert if he would be willing to play guitar on the song. I sent him a letter and a copy of the tune but I received no reply to my request. I figured he didn't want anything to do with the song so I forgot about it.
A few months later I was at Westgate Music procuring some new harmonicas when I bumped into Robert. I helped him carry his guitar into the music store and while I was doing so he asked me why I "hadn't called him about that guitar part". I looked at him like he was nuts. I said "Robert, I mailed you a copy of the disc and asked you to get back to me but you never replied ." Robert hit me with his cane in a playful manner and said "mothafucka, I don't read the mail, just call me on the phone". I was amazed. Here I was talking to one of my heroes and he was actually agreeing to come into the studio to lay down a track with my band and I. After 16 years of gigging and recording I felt like I had finally arrived musically.
I was so excited about having Robert play with us. I booked the studio for August 24, 2005 and anxiously waited for the recording date to arrive. I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve who unable to sleep in anticipation of Santa's arrival.
On the day of the session I was very busy. I had John Delaney from the New Barleycorn band coming in to play the pennywhistle on the song "Loch Lomond". Greg Hurd was recording a mandolin part for the same song and WCPN Radio's Dee Perry was coming in to do some voice over work. With these artists in the able hands of engineer and studio owner Chris Keffer I left to go and pick up Robert Lockwood Jr. for his session with us.
Magnetic North Studio is located in the Agora Building on East 55th and Euclid Avenues. Robert lives literally 10 minutes from the studio. I left to pick him up thinking I would swing by his house, pick him up and make it back to the studio as the other artists were finishing up with their takes.
I arrived at Robert's house and found him enjoying a game of checkers on the enclosed front porch of his home with one of his pals. I stood and watched for a while as he and his buddy slid the black and red round wooden circles across the board while taunting one another with friendly jibes and provocations As I waited for the game to end I walked around the 90 year old musicians' house and looked at all of his awards and photos and perused the compact discs that he had laying about. As I thumbed through photo albums in the living room, game after gamed on the front porch ended up in a tie or a "push". After a while I realized they wouldn't be finishing up anytime soon. I continued to look around the house. This time I sat down and really read the citations, awards and books that were laying about the living room.
After a half hour or so I went back onto the porch and looked on as the checker games continued to end in ties. Now I was starting to think about how much money these checker games were costing me. I had been at Roberts house for nearly an hour and half while he played checkers, but I didn't have the heart to rush him along. After all he is 90 years old and a hero of mine. I could afford to sit and wait patiently. Finally, some two hours later someone finally and mercifully won a game and we were off to the studio!
When we arrived at the studio Robert took his blue guitar out its case and began to tune it, but the guitar wouldn't stay in tune. No matter what we tried the ax would not keep its' pitch. After 45 minutes of trying to tune the blue Gretsch 12 string guitar we decided that the neck needed some repairs and that we would need to come back on another date as time was running out on my session. I was really bummed as I thought "there is no way I will be able to get Robert back into the studio again". I really felt like I had lost my one and only chance to have a legend and a hero of mine record with me and now it was gone". I proceeded to drive Robert back home while telling him that we would have to set up another date. When I hit East 55th street Robert urged me to "turn right". He needed me to "go and pick up his dry cleaning". I had to laugh! I drove him to the dry cleaners and watched as he flirted with the counter girls. I carried his suits to the car and we made our way back to his house where we sat for several hours discussing music and various other topics.
Several weeks passed and I set up another studio session and arranged a time to pick up Robert. This time though, I didn't approach it like I was picking up a legend, I decided it was more like picking up a 90 year old who, understandably moves a little bit slower than the rest of us. That being said he actually gets around quite well and if I saw Robert on the street and did not know him I would guess his age to be 70. This time around I allowed myself several hours from the time I picked Robert up to the time I needed to be in the studio. At this point in the story, I must stress that I mean no disrespect to Robert by recounting these events. I am simply sharing what happened so as others might enjoy the background information pertaining to the song and CD. Furthermore, I don't ever want to forget this incredible experience myself. This is almost like a "diary" entry if you will.
On September 21, 2005 I knocked on Robert's front door and he answered by saying "oh was that session today?" I said "yes Robert it's today". He said, "well, I haven't had my tea yet". I said "that's okay, let's sit in the kitchen and you can enjoy your tea." Robert, his wife Mary and I sat in the kitchen for an hour or so and we swapped musician stories over several cups of tea.
After the tea was gone and our story telling had ended I drove Robert to the studio with the previous attempt at getting a take weighing heavily on my mind. Robert and I entered the studio as Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat was finishing up. his slide work on our song "City of New Orleans-20005". Austin made way for Robert and he, Chris Keffer and I sat and watched in amazement as Robert took his place in the control room, plugged in his 12 string guitar, and began playing along with my song for 3 hours straight non-stop!
To have Robert Lockwood Jr. Play on my CD is one of the biggest thrills of my life. I am forever indebted to Robert for his kindness and willingness to lend his talent and name to my project. In the end, I wouldn't change a single thing that happened. I not only got a great guitar part from my friend, but I got some great stories and memories that I will cherish forever. King me!
Colin Dussault - December 1, 2005