When people ask me about if I believe all that stuff about [Robert Johnson selling his soul to the] devil, I say ‘Hell No!’ It is stupid. How can an adult sell his soul to the devil? If it does happen, it happens when you are born.
story by David Witter
As the stepson of Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood’s place in blues history would have already been assured regardless of his actions. Yet Lockwood has used the lessons taught to him by the mythical Johnson to help transform blues music from an oral, backwoods folk form featured at dirt floor juke joints to the multi-million dollar industry that it is today.
The accomplishments of this quiet, media-shy legend include joining up with Sonny Boy Williamson in 1941 to perform the first ever broadcast of blues music on KFFA Radio’s now legendary “King Biscuit Time”, recording with Muddy Waters and giving a young, thin B.B. King his first formal guitar lessons.
The fact that on this month Lockwood will once again be playing at both the Front Porch (3:00) and Juke Joint (5:30-6:00) stages at The Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park underscores his importance. The recent release of Eric Clapton’s CD, Me and Mr. Johnson, also indicates the continuing artistic and commercial influence of the music of Robert Johnson.
To this day, Lockwood remains the only man to have ever been taught the revolutionary guitar style that was so dynamic and musically advanced that it spawned myths of Johnson having “gone to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil.”
“Eric Clapton is a great guitarist, and yes, he can play the music of Robert Johnson – in his own style,” Lockwood tells Chicago Innerview. “But I was the only one who Robert taught to play the music. I sat down with him in our house and we went over the songs note by note, exactly the way he played them.”
Lockwood came under Johnson’s tutelage after his mother separated from his birth father, Robert Lockwood Sr. Although not officially married, the relationship between Robert’s mother and Johnson was long term, intimate, and devoted. So much so that Robert Lockwood Jr. changed his name to Robert Jr. Lockwood in deference to his stepfather. But besides changing monikers, Robert Johnson also changed Lockwood’s instrument – but not his chosen profession.
“I knew when I was a boy that I was going to be a musician,” Lockwood says from his home in Cleveland, Ohio. “But I wanted to be a piano player. Robert started me on guitar and I liked what he was doing, so one day he sat down and started teaching me guitar.”
The lessons between Robert Johnson and Lockwood are now a part of blues mythology, but Lockwood was more than just a talented student. This was borne out by the fact that within a few months, Johnson and Lockwood – who were only a few years apart in actual age – were playing together. These included afternoons in which Lockwood and Johnson would each stand on one side of the Sunflower River in Davenport, Mississippi, and the two would trade licks – with Robert Jr. more than holding his own.
“He was actually testing my skills, but at the time I didn’t know it,” Lockwood says. It was probably just coincidence, but these “tests” took on an almost magical tone, like a Mississippi version of King Arthur’s knights. Johnson’s tragic and mysterious death in August of 1938 added even more to the mythical elements of the story.
“I was pretty shaken up,” Lockwood says. “I didn’t play for over a year. As far as my mother and I were concerned, he was a wonderful, wonderful man.”
Around l940, Lockwood traveled to Chicago, where he began to make his way in what was to later become known as the “home of the blues.” In l941, however, Lockwood returned to the Delta and the town of Helena, Arkansas. It was here that he would begin to make history in his own right. Previously, there were no radio stations where blues music – or black people in general – could be heard in the South. This changed when Sonny Boy Williamson, after being sponsored by Max Moore and Interstate Grocery, began what will forever be known as KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time.”
“Sonny Boy got the job,” Lockwood says. “He’d been in Helena for a week and asked me if I would play with him. I said ‘yes’ and we were on the air.” That meeting led to Williamson and Lockwood becoming what author Robert Palmer called “the first blues media superstars.” One example of the show’s power was that two Mississippi sheriffs actually “arrested” Lockwood and Williamson and forced them to play music.
“They took advantage of us,” Lockwood says. “There was no music in the town so they just put us in jail with no formal charge. During the day they would let us out and make us play music, and at night they would lock us up in the jail. They kept us for 21 days,” Lockwood continues, “but they did let us keep the money we earned. I think we ended up making almost 1,100 dollars.”
Perhaps to avoid the constant comparisons to his stepfather, but also because of his musical interests, Lockwood began to change his guitar playing to feature single string runs, fifths, ninths, and other chords that more closely resembled a “jazzy” style.
“I always played standards, songs like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Caldonia’,” Lockwood says. “I loved people like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson, and at the time there really weren’t any ‘jazz’ guitarists. So I took what I heard on the piano and on horns and put it to guitar.”
The influence of Williamson’s and Lockwood’s show at KFFA is hard to measure, but the fact that versions of the show still run more than 60 years later is one example. Another is the influence of one of the show’s early listeners, the man who many consider to be the greatest of all bluesmen, was B.B. King. In fact, King so admired Lockwood’s guitar work that he sought him out to give him lessons.
“I taught him [B.B. King] to play. He gave me credit for that,” Lockwood says. “He was just a skinny country boy from Indianola, Mississippi. He could play okay but his timing – his timing was ape shit,” Lockwood says, laughing.
In the late 1940s Lockwood more or less left Arkansas for good. His fist destination was Chicago, a city that he was already established due to his long trips there. Ironically, his stepfather wrote the anthem “Sweet Home Chicago” about the city even though he had never been there. While in the Windy City, Lockwood played and recorded with Muddy Waters and worked at a spinoff of Chess Studios. But unlike contemporaries Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, Lockwood did not continue to play the blues full-time during the music’s lean years in the early 1960s. Instead he moved to Cleveland, where he continued to raise his family and play the blues part-time.
Like many other bluesmen, the blues revival of the late 1960s rekindled his career. Since then Lockwood has played and toured the world at his own pace, picking up a couple of W.C. Handy Awards and just being a legend.
Despite all of his personal accomplishments, the continuing air play of Cream’s “Crossroads”, the l990s movie of the same title, Clapton’s latest CD, and even the Chicago Blues Festival’s “Crossroads Stage” link him inexorably to the fable of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar prowess. Johnson’s blending of melody, harmony, and bass on guitars that would probably be used as fire kindling today still mystifies everyone that hears Johnson’s recordings. But Lockwood has a more plausible explanation for Johnson’s amazing sound.
“Robert came up under people like Son House and Willie Brown, and he matched them, but he also added his own style,” Lockwood says. “He got this from listening to players like Le Roy Carr on the piano, and what he did was to translate the right and left hand sounds of a piano to guitar. When people ask me about if I believe all that stuff about the devil, I say ‘Hell No!’ It is stupid. How can an adult sell his soul to the devil? If it does happen, it happens when you are born.”
Robert Jr. Lockwood will play two shows at the Chicago Blues Festival June 11.