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Lockwood's legacy 

A tale of two Roberts, and a lifetime in the blues

It was 1930, give or take a year or two. Robert Lockwood Jr. was a teenager, living with his mother in Helena, Ark. His parents had split up some time before, and his mom was involved with a man named Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson.

Lockwood was musically inclined, having played piano since age 8. Upon hearing Johnson, however, his life changed forever.

"If he hadn't been the type of musician that he was, I never would have [taken up the guitar]," says Lockwood, who performs Thursday and Friday at the Atlanta History Center. "I would listen to him play the guitar by hisself, play the melody and the chords and singing. I knew when I heard him work that he was special and he was doing something that other people couldn't do. By him teaching me to play, I really knew."

Johnson, who was murdered in 1938 at age 27, would posthumously influence generations of musicians through his million-selling recordings. But Lockwood was the only person to whom Johnson actually taught guitar. Today, the 87-year-old musician continues Johnson's musical legacy in his own extraordinary body of work. His recordings -- most recently, the Grammy-nominated Telarc release Delta Crossroads -- draw deeply from the Johnson aesthetic and are often cast in solo or small-group acoustic settings.

But Lockwood is more than a Johnson protege. In the early 1940s, he performed with blues harmonica icon Sonny Boy Williamson on the "King Biscuit Time" radio program in Helena. He later formed his first band, a seven-piece jazz ensemble, for a similar program for Mother's Best flour, virtually introducing the electric guitar to radio audiences across the Mississippi Delta.

Lockwood moved to Chicago in the '40s, cut sides for the Bluebird label and became a top studio musician and arranger, working with Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, Roosevelt Sykes and others. Classic Little Walter Jacobs tunes such as "Boom Boom Out Go the Lights" and "My Babe" featured Lockwood as both guitarist and arranger.

But while Lockwood led bands for others, attempts to front his own were commercially unsuccessful. Frustrated, Lockwood relocated to Cleveland in 1960. "I came here with Sonny Boy Williamson. He was living here at that time. I came here, acted the damn fool, and bought a house," he says.

Today, Lockwood has a nine-piece band and a repertoire that includes blues, jazz, swing and R&B. (For his Atlanta show, he'll be accompanied by only a bassist.) He's recorded for numerous labels and performed throughout Europe and in Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. His 1980 recording, Hangin' On, with the late Johnny Shines, won a W.C. Handy Award, and he recently received an honorary doctorate degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Despite his versatility, it's the Johnson connection that has the most profound impact on audiences. And while it's a link that over-emphasizes just one of his musical talents, that doesn't bother him. But Lockwood is disappointed that he hasn't enjoyed any direct financial benefit from the success of Johnson's recordings. Meanwhile, he says, Johnson's son (after a lengthy court battle) and those who hold copyrights on Johnson's material have earned millions.

Still, when asked how he feels about the Johnson legacy, Lockwood says, "I feel good as hell. That's how I feel. Robert Johnson was my teacher. He taught me to play, and I'm the only somebody that can play his material."

bryan.powell@creativeloafing.com

Robert Lockwood performs Thurs.-Fri., April 4-5, at the Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road. 7:30 p.m. $20-$35. The show, "Yesterday and Today in the Delta," also features James "Super Chikan" Johnson and James "Sparky" Rucker. 404-814-4150. www.atlhist.org.

Talkin' Blues covers blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Please e-mail or send blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.

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