Robert Lockwood Jr., a Delta blues guitarist who became the torchbearer of Robert Johnson's guitar legacy and a revered musician in his own right, died Tuesday at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. He was 91 and had suffered a brain aneurysm and a stroke.
Few guitarists had the enduring mystique of Johnson, a hard-living, hard-loving musician who created soulful blues landmarks before his death at 27 from poisoned whiskey.
Growing up in rural Arkansas, Lockwood learned guitar fundamentals from Johnson, who also functioned as an occasional father figure though there was only a four-year age difference.
A professional musician at 15, Lockwood reached wider audiences through radio work in the early 1940s from a station in Helena, Ark. One listener, B.B. King, became Lockwood's pupil, and years later Lockwood advised the addition of horns to King's band to disguise his imperfect sense of keeping time.
Lockwood, who also sang and composed songs, was a well-disciplined, un-flashy musician -- some called him the least known elder statesman in music. In the last few decades, he almost exclusively played the 12-string guitar.
In Chicago, he became a fixture of blues and jazz recording sessions for Chess and other record labels. He played with nearly every blues giant who passed through the city in the 1940s and '50s, including guitarist Muddy Waters; singer Howlin' Wolf; pianists Roosevelt Sykes, Curtis Jones, Sunnyland Slim and Eddie Boyd; and harmonica player Little Walter.
Long settled in Cleveland, he began recording as a soloist in the 1970s after appearances at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in Michigan. He continued playing at clubs, college campuses and festivals around the world, and received awards and blues hall of fame inductions.
Lockwood was born March 27, 1915, on a farm in Turkey Scratch, Ark., about 25 miles from Helena. His parents separated when he was young, and he learned guitar from two of his cousins. The grandson of a preacher, he also enjoyed playing the blues on the organ.
When Lockwood was 11, Johnson showed up on his doorstep. "He followed my momma home," Lockwood told the publication Living Blues. "And she couldn't get rid of him. He wouldn't leave. He hung around there and hung around there. And he and my momma stayed together off and on for 10 years."
After Johnson's death in 1938, Lockwood went to Chicago and made his first recordings, backing singer Doctor Clayton. His experiments on the electric guitar gained wide notice on "King Biscuit Time," a 15-minute radio program broadcast during the noon hour from Helena. He later switched to an all-jazz format for a competing show sponsored by Mother's Best Flour that had national reach.
In 1950, he became a session guitarist for Chess Records, the premier blues label. During this boom period in postwar urban blues, he was particularly adept at blending in with classically educated musicians and those with little formal training.
"Most of the blues singers were kinda uneducated, so maybe they didn't know when they were being shorted," he said in 1994 of the notoriously bad bookkeeping at most record labels. "The Chess brothers were a little afraid of me because I was outspoken.
"One time, Little Walter got shot," he said. "When they took him to the hospital, the police pried open his fist, and he had three sticks of marijuana. They chained Little Walter to the bed, so I told Leonard Chess what happened.
"He said, 'That ... Walter's gonna give me a heart attack, yet.' I told him, 'I don't know about that, but I do know that he made you a millionaire, so what you gonna do?' Chess called out there, and they took the chains off of Little Walter, just like that."
Lured to Cleveland for work in 1960, Lockwood stayed, figuring he had less competition than in Chicago.
He worked as a chauffeur and nightclub manager and made an impressive guitar-piano duet with Otis Spann, who had been Muddy Waters' pianist. Their "Otis Spann Is the Blues" (1960) featured a rollicking version of what became Lockwood's unofficial theme song, "Little Boy Blue."
Lockwood began his solo career in the 1970s, and his records combined fierce Delta-style picking with horn-backed swing blues. The Rounder label paired him with fellow Johnson disciple Johnny Shines on the albums "Hangin' On" (1979) and "Mr. Blues Is Back to Stay" (1980).
His 1998 release "I've Got to Find Me a Woman," including a guitar duet with B.B. King, received a Grammy Award nomination for traditional blues album. "Delta Crossroads" (2000), released on the Telarc label, received a second nomination.
Lockwood received two W.C. Handy Awards, the highest honor in blues music. In 1995, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton presented him with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award.
Survivors include his wife, Mary Smith Lockwood of Cleveland; four stepchildren from his first marriage to Annie Roberts Lockwood, who died in 1997; and four stepchildren from his second marriage.