By Melissa Fossum
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Robert Lockwood Jr. is a remarkable American story. Nurtured and taught by seminal bluesman Robert Johnson, who lived with Lockwood's mother in the last years of his life, the 88-year-old Lockwood is one of the last living practitioners of the Delta blues the way it was conceived.
"I've got two doctorate degrees. Isn't that enough to keep going?" says a proud Lockwood, who still performs regularly, from his Cleveland home. He refers to two honorary degrees from Cleveland State University and Case Western University, two of the numerous honors bestowed on Lockwood just in the past decade.
Lockwood has spent more than 70 years performing and exploring the blues, experimenting with jazz and pop forms and innovating with his unique guitar playing along the way. He picked up an electric guitar in 1939, one of the first blues players to do so. He switched exclusively to 12-string guitars in the mid-1960s, which allowed him to play stunningly evocative and full-bodied versions of old standards like Lightnin' Hopkins' "C.C. Rider" and Johnson's "Dust My Broom." "I don't bend the strings, so why not play the 12-string?" Lockwood explains. "I don't like to bend the strings. Everybody wants to play like B.B. King, and I don't want to play like B.B. King."
While he worked as a session man in Chicago in the 1950s, he didn't release formal recordings of his own until the 1970s, and when he did, they were incredible. Contrasts, released in 1973, features Lockwood playing and singing scorching blues anthems alongside a tenor saxophone player.
Still, Lockwood had to wait more than two decades for the world at large to fully acknowledge his accomplishments, performing in relative obscurity at supper clubs, local bars and other establishments in and around Cleveland and on the blues circuit. His newfound profile came in part because of a Grammy nomination for his 2000 album Delta Crossroads, an album of acoustic renditions of classics. He'll be recording a new live album here in Phoenix at the Rhythm Room, performing alone with just his electric 12-string.
"I'm glad to be able to be good enough to achieve them," Lockwood says of his various honors. "I knew what my ability was." Then, he adds, "It would have come a long, long time ago if anybody had picked my records up."
And that's a shame, because Lockwood, for preserving and extending the legacy of Robert Johnson, deserves all the lauds he can muster.