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If it's blues guitar you want to learn, who would you conjure up to be your teacher, anyone, living or otherwise? John Lee Hooker? Freddy King? Buddy Guy? Sure, you could do worse. But there's no way you could do any better than having the immortal Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, show you how to pick and fret a blues riff to beat the devil.
And while you, me, and every other blues guitar player can only fantasize about taking a lesson from Robert Johnson, ideally in the front porch of some shotgun shack in southern Mississippi with a jug of moonshine whiskey, there's only one man walking among us who can make that claim for real: Robert Lockwood Jr.
With the possible exception of Johnny Shines, Lockwood has been the prime torchbearer for the blues legacy and sound of Johnson and represents one of the last living links to the Delta blues era of the 1920s and '30s.
Born at an auspicious time for the blues (1915, in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, a tiny, apt-named hamlet just west of Helena) Lockwood came into the world the same year as other monumental bluesmen Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Johnny Shines, and Honeyboy Edwards. All were born within 100 miles of one another.
The young Lockwood started out on the family pump organ but switched to guitar at age 13 after Johnson took up with his mother, Esther. It was an arrangement that lasted for ten years and would endear Johnson to the boy, so much so that Lockwood considered himself Johnson's stepson.
"As soon as [Johnson would] set the guitar down, I'd pick it up and play, and finally he said, 'Do you really want to learn to play?' And he began to show me a few things, and he taught me," Lockwood says from his home in Cleveland. "But he'd only show me twice."
Getting any kind of lesson from Johnson was a task, because he was said to be so secretive about his technique that he faced the wall during his fabled recording sessions so no one could see what he was playing.
"Robert would come off the road and Robert would not show nobody nothing. Robert was secretive," Lockwood says. "He was scared to death of me. I didn't have to do nothing but see him do it and I could play what he could play and that much more."
There's a story of Johnson taking his young protégé down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, each one playing on separate sides of the Sunflower River. When it was time to go, Johnson had 80 cents more than Lockwood. The people were confused: Which one was Robert Johnson?
"He went to play one time and took me, but he pretended he was bad drunk, and I had to fill in," says Lockwood, bravado and recollection untouched by time. "He wasn't drunk. He was testing me. Like I say, I scared him."
After Johnson's death in 1938, Lockwood joined forces with harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, and the two became the first and regular act on the legendary King Biscuit Time radio program on KFFA out of Helena. It was also around this time that Lockwood picked up an electric guitar, one of the first bluesmen to do so, and he was the first electric blues guitarist to be broadcast live.
"Me and Sonny Boy started King Biscuit Time, and I left because me and one of the stockholders wasn't gettin' along too good," Lockwood says. "But I stayed on the station and started working for another company. That's what I done when I put my band together, an all-jazz outfit, working for Mother's Best Flour Co."
Even though Lockwood can still play in the bone-chilling Johnson style whenever he chooses, his technical mastery of the guitar made his move to a jazzier sound a relatively easy and logical step. But for Lockwood, it was more an issue of expediency over experimentation.
"I played ten years like Robert Johnson," Lockwood says. "My first band I got was a bunch of guys that didn't play nothing but jazz. But I had a name, and I had a record out. So I had to learn how to play jazz to keep the band."
After moving to Chicago in 1950, Lockwood became the session man for Chess Records throughout the decade, recording with the biggest Chicago blues acts during that era's heyday. But it wasn't until 1970 that Lockwood recorded his first solo album, with only a handful of albums since.
"Well, I really don't like playing by myself," Lockwood explains. "I really prefer working with a band. But I was taught to play by myself by Robert Johnson, so I can do it if I want to."
And even though Lockwood has been playing and contributing to the blues for 72 years, it's only been in the past 20 that he's started to get his due. Since 1980, he's received seven W.C. Handy Awards, a National Heritage Fellowship Award, and two honorary doctorate degrees and been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
But for all that the blues has contributed to modern music in this country, from Robert Johnson on down, blues musicians still find it hard to earn a living on the fringes of the music industry.