One of the few remaining Delta blues masters is gone. Robert Lockwood, Jr. passed away Monday, November 20, in Cleveland. He was 91.
Born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas (just outside Helena) in 1915, Lockwood grew up in an area that yielded other Delta greats. At age 11 Lockwood learned guitar from the legendary, enigmatic Robert Johnson, who was living with Lockwood's mother at the time. Lockwood played with Johnson and others at juke joints, fish fries, and street corners learning his stepfather's style. Johnson's live fast, die young lifestyle caught up with him in 1937 and Lockwood headed north. He became an in-demand session player for Chess Records in the 1950s playing on recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson, Roosevelt Sykes, Eddie Boyd, and Sunnyland Slim to name a few. He also cut several sides for Mercury.
Lockwood moved to Cleveland in the 1960, and that's where he raised his family. Lockwood continued to play the blues up until his death last week.
So I'm telling you all this because Lockwood is here in spirit, through mighty influence. Lockwood came through Rochester from time to time. His music spoke in particular to bluesman Steve Grills, who caught Lockwood at The Red Creek in 1978. It left a lasting impression. The two became friends.
As most know, Grills is an extremely articulate and reverent blues musician who knows and loves all styles and nuances within the genre. But over the years, whenever he spoke of Lockwood, his eyes would light up. Lockwood's style seemed to excite more than most. Grills traveled to Cleveland frequently to catch the man at his weekly gigs. He even got the chance to record with him on a Shakin' Smith project. Among the countless guitarists that influence Grills' style, Lockwood's floats undeniably on top.
"He was one of my all-time favorite guitar players," Grills says. "And just a great guy. He was as dedicated to the tradition he came from as he was in being a progressive artist. He was always evolving."
So when you hear Grills, you'll be hearing Lockwood too. And though he's gone, the most important part of his life --- and American music history --- remains bristling at Grills' fingertips.