Can you imagine the pressure, being the heir apparent to immortal greatness? That kind of thing can do a man in.
Robert “Junior” Lockwood was more than just a close personal friend of the great Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Due to an on-and-off ten year romantic entanglement between Lockwood's mother and the dashing, skylarking Mr. Johnson, Lockwood found himself with a big brother, a stepfather of sorts, and a musical mentor who would teach him all the tricks he had to tell. It was this relationship that gave Lockwood his “Robert Junior” nickname and the keys to his future.
And as with most such family dramas, it would be wonderful to write that the three of them, Robert, Robert Junior and mom, retired to a long and happy life on a farm somewhere in Arkansas or western Mississippi and ended their days in the company of beloved friends and family.
But instead, Robert Johnson found himself dying in a warm Mississippi night, poisoned by the jilted partner of one his many female companions, Robert Junior found his way out of the Delta by feet and inches, and only his mother had a shot at the idyllic storybook ending (God only knows if she got it).
As it turned out, Robert “Junior” Lockwood, heir to immortal greatness, was made of pretty stern stuff. Armed with all the tricks of music and showmanship he'd learned from his mentor, and cut loose from home at a fairly young age, he made a name for himself in juke joints and fish fries up and down the big river, wound his slow way North, and eventually became the go-to guitarist for dozens of recording sessions in the golden age of the Chicago blues.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lockwood appeared with some of the all time greats of the Chicago blues style, like Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and even Muddy Waters, adding what needed to be added, always staying out of the spotlight. Along the way he continued to teach himself more about the guitar, getting jazz lines and chords under his fingers, even mastering the art of the blues on the notoriously cumbersome 12-string guitar.
In the wake of Lockwood's death late last year, the Delmark label is reissuing once again their CD release of his first session as a bandleader, Steady Rollin' Man, recorded in 1970.
I have to admit, I was all set to politely pan this album. Its plainer moments are nice enough, sure, but not really incredibly distinct from any one of dozens of worthy Chicago blues albums recorded in the last half-century. But then I found myself walking down the street on a cloudless Massachusetts afternoon, with the sunlight slanting just so from the west and a beautiful melancholy mood coming down, and the song playing in my head was Robert "Junior" Lockwood's "Western Horizon."
Structurally, the song is nothing more than a stock Chicago blues by way of the Delta: start the song with the little turnaround where one voice descends chromatically from the flat-7 to the dominant, kick in the twelve bar shuffle vamp, and then cue a lyric whose first two lines are the same and begin with "I believe, I believe… I believe I'll…."
Trust me, you know this song. Whether it's sung as "Sweet Home Chicago" or "Dust My Broom" or any one of dozens of alternate lyrics, you know this song.
But what I forgot when I got ready to politely pan the album is that in this kind of blues, it's all in the details – the bent notes, the vibe of the song, the little turns of lyric and phrasing that make a blue performance just right.
And there's lots in "Western Horizon" that is definitely right. Lockwood studied jazz, and you can hear it sometimes in the way he pulls a phrase behind the beat, the way he swings a line, the way he builds some altered harmonies into his rhythm vamps. On “Western Horizon,” he sings behind the beat and then creeps right up to it, rushes some words and draws others out, and generally sounds like he was born singing the song in that same unhurried way. The effect is cool and stylish, and is a neat twist on top of the late-night saloon mood that he and the band kick up on this song and the album in general.
And what a band! For this session, Lockwood tapped some of the best that Chicago had to offer – Fred Below on drums, Dave Myers on bass, and Louis Myers on second guitar. The arrangements and tempos they dig into are less aggressive, less slick, than some of the work that Lockwood was doing as a session man around the same time.
Instead, Lockwood and the band let a whiff of country mud into their jazzy urban blues by laying back into grooves, moving some of the rhythm playing up the neck of the guitar (like Junior's ‘godfather’ used to do) and pulling out some great old turnaround riffs that could have come straight from the pines of Arkansas in 1937. On the slower grooves, like "Take a Little Walk With Me," "Mean Red Spider" and "Western Horizon," the band sit back in a simmer that showcases their sedate rock-steadiness and country overtones. But on the jump blues numbers like the overtly jazzy "Lockwood's Boogie" they sit right up in the pocket and deliver all the energy you could ever want to power a Chicago blues bar.
With repeated listens, the jazz elements drift to the front of the record. Jazz harmonies and a cool late-night vibe are all over songs like the instrumental "Tanya" and even the by-the-numbers "Take a Little Walk With Me" and "Steady Rollin' Man," and Lockwood's solos on any song may at any point quietly pass over from basic pentatonic flat-five scales into something that's no longer just the blues. The cumulative effect is pretty impressive, a nice balance of influences that don't often play well together but on this album fit together almost seamlessly.
So, okay. Maybe there are one or two too many straight-ahead numbers on this disc which sap a little energy from the running order. But that really doesn't hide the fact that I was wrong, and that Steady Rollin' Man is a minor masterpiece of the blues, pulling together the city, the country, and even jazz into one unassuming and masterful demonstration of why Robert “Junior” Lockwood was thought so highly of. Good stuff.