Steady Rolling Man
Robert Jr. Lockwood Plays Robert & Robert
When Robert Lockwood Jr. passed away on November 21, one of the
last living links to Robert Johnson was taken. Johnson, though only four
or five years Lockwood’s senior, kept company with Lockwood’s mother and
taught the youngster the style he jealously kept from nearly everyone
else, even helping him build a guitar from the back of a phonograph
using baling wire for strings. Lockwood was never interested in playing
the guitar until he saw Johnson play because Johnson was the first
person he ever saw play rhythm and melody by himself.
Lockwood proved to be a quick study. In addition to learning Johnson’s
style, he also developed an affinity for a jazzy blues style similar to
Charlie Christian or Eddie Durham that he eventually seemed to prefer to
the Johnson style. Lockwood also served as a big influence to B. B. King
and even gave King guitar lessons. He was one of the most in-demand
session guitarists of the late ’40s/early ’50s, appearing on numerous
tracks by artists like Sonny Boy Williamson (with whom he also appeared
on the King Biscuit Time radio program), Little Walter (“Juke“),
Roosevelt Sykes, Dr. Clayton, Muddy Waters, Willie Mabon, and Sunnyland
Slim, along with a legendary session backing Otis Spann for Candid
Surprisingly, except for a few singles for Bluebird and JOB, Lockwood
never recorded a complete session as a bandleader until 1970, when he
recorded Steady Rollin’ Man for Bob Koester’s Delmark label. In
fact, Lockwood had settled in Cleveland, Ohio and was off the scene for
a few years in the ’60s.
Steady Rollin’ Man features a few songs from Robert Johnson’s
repertoire (“Ramblin‘ On My Mind,” “Kind Hearted Woman“), spiced up by
Lockwood’s jazzy guitar work, many of which ended up as permanent
fixtures on his set list. In addition, Lockwood played several of his
own compositions that we would see on later releases as well (“Western
Horizon, “ “Take A Walk With Me”).
Assisting Lockwood on this session was Little Walter’s former band, the
Aces. Louis Myers played rhythm guitar, his brother Dave Myers played
bass, and the great Fred Below served as timekeeper. They get an
opportunity to stretch out on several Lockwood instrumentals, “Steady
Groove,” “Lockwood’s Boogie” and “Tanya.” You couldn’t ask for a better
backing group and they complement Lockwood very well.
This was not a bad first session as leader for Lockwood, but his
subsequent ’70s recordings for Trix (Contrasts and ...Does 12,
now available as The Complete Trix Recordings) were livelier sets and
more representative of the style he was playing. However, Steady
Rollin’ Man was the release that put him back on the blues map to
stay, and is a nice, relaxed set from a seasoned group of professionals.
In 1982, Lockwood returned to his roots in a manner of speaking,
recording a solo set on his instrument of choice, 12-string guitar. The
set was recorded in Paris for Disques Black & Blue and reissued by
Evidence in the mid-’90s. Robert Jr. Lockwood Plays Robert & Robert
features six songs by Robert Johnson and five songs by Lockwood.
Lockwood’s 12-string gives an added dimension to the Johnson tracks,
though he is faithful in his interpretation. Many of these songs are
regulars on Lockwood releases (“Sweet Home Chicago,” “Kind Hearted
Woman,” “Rambling On My Mind,” “Steady Rollin’ Man”) but Lockwood’s
jazzy stylishness is mixed with the original desperation and urgency of
Johnson’s originals and it gives the songs a fresh look and feel.
Lockwood’s own songs (“Western Horizon,” “Little Boy Blue,” “She’s
Little and Low,” “Take A Walk With Me”) give the listener a pretty good
idea of what Johnson might have sounded like had he survived past 1938.
While no one knows for sure, Lockwood once told writer Peter Guralnick
(recounted in Guralnick’s essay, Searching For Robert Johnson)
that had Johnson lived, their styles probably would have matched up
pretty closely. Plays Robert & Robert is an underrated gem in the
Lockwood catalog and is essential listening.
Lockwood once said, “People accept me like I am or leave me alone.” That
statement summed up his entire career. He never compromised, either
musically or personally, and he succeeded on his own terms. If you’re a
newcomer to Robert Lockwood Jr., these two discs are a great place to
--- Graham Clarke