His remarkable talent at playing both lead and accompaniment and at capturing the essence of many styles of guitar playing, his high, searing vocal style, and his personal charisma made him a defining figure in the early history of the Delta Blues. He was truly a legend in his own time. Following his death under mysterious circumstances in 1938 (it is said that he was poisoned or shot by a jealous rival or by a spurned lover), many musicians have been quick to say they knew him or played with him, but only one can say that Robert Johnson actually taught him how to play - Robert Jr. Lockwood.
Blues guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood was born in 1915 in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, and lived in Helena, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather was a preacher and as a child he learned to play the organ. He liked the blues, but he didn't play them when his grandfather was around. "I couldn't play when he was there 'cause he was a preacher. I liked the blues and was playing them on organ. We all [in the family] played them on organ. My grandfather didn't know it."
This all changed when he met Robert Johnson. His mother, long separated from her husband, met Johnson when her son Robert was 13, and Johnson lived with her on and off for the next ten years. When young Robert heard him play the guitar, he said, "This is what I want to do...I learned how to play the guitar like Robert. And I didn't touch the organ no more." Within a couple of years, Robert Lockwood, Jr. (whose name was inverted to be Robert Jr. Lockwood because of his relationship to Robert Johnson) was playing at local house parties, street corners, and gambling establishments for pay to help support his mother. When he was 16, he teamed up for a while with another blues great, harmonica playerSonny Boy Williamson, with whom he later recorded and performed regularly on the influential radio show King Biscuit Time.
"We were the first ones to play amplified blues over the radio," he says. His musical fortunes over the next 60 years of his career took him to many places throughout the United States (especially cities along the Delta-to-Chicago axis), Japan and Europe. When Lockwood lists the people he has played with over his career, it reads like a Who's Who of the blues and includes the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and Johnny Shines.
In addition to his grounding in Johnson's Delta blues style, he took a liking to the music of Count Basie and Ray Charles. Perhaps as a result, his own playing over the years has tended to include more progressive, extended chord progressions than those found in traditional blues, and his melodic improvisations lean toward the jazz idiom.
"Rolling Stone says I'm not a blues musician," he says. "Some people might say that Ray Charles isn't either, but he can play blues better than most, because he knows more. I'm the same way, a craftsman of music. I can play all different styles, and I'm very grateful that I had the ability to learn." Also atypical of most Delta blues is his use of the 12-string guitar. "My wife Annie bought me that 12-string. I ignored it at first, but when I heard the great chord sound it got, I loved it. Now that's all I play."
Robert Jr. Lockwood has many recordings to his credit, including two more recent releases on Rounder Records. In 1940, he recorded his well-known Little Boy Blue and other compositions with RCA Victor in Chicago, where he eventually worked as a studio musician for Chess Records for 17 years. He made other recordings on the Trix and Delmark labels and with companies in France and Japan. In 1960, he and his wife settled in Cleveland, Ohio. He continues to play concerts both locally and at festivals around the country, with one of his favorites being the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in his home town of Helena, Arkansas.