During the couple of years after the first album was released, I spent time with Robert Lockwood at his home in Cleveland whenever I was in town, usually stopping off when en route to Chicago or Detroit. I got to watch him play killer games of checkers on his front porch with Roosevelt, a harp player that he had mentioned and thought was pretty good, but I never got to hear him sit in with Robert’s band. Coming from such as Lockwood, the man who helped “make” Little Walter and “Sonny Boy Williamson” on record in the Chess studios, that stood for something in the realm of harmonica playing. (Robert’s presence in Cleveland was the result of a tour with Rice Miller that fell apart there… he thought that the Ohio city a nice place for his family, a view he might not have supported in his later days.) He did take me once to a Sunday jam session to hear blind jazz organist Eddie Baccus, an absolute wonder on the instrument, who recorded one LP for the Mercury Records subsidiary, Smash. Produced by Roland Kirk, a former schoolmate at blind school in Columbus, as was George Cook, I believe… . Cookie was on some of the LP in fact and Kirk played flute on one tune, billing himself as “Theotis Tannis”! Back in the days before political correctness, Kirk, Baccus, and Cook worked as “The Three Blind Mice” in lounges around Ohio. My money and time ran out before I could record Baccus – he’s still playing in Cleveland and is the father if Eddie Baccus, Jr. a “smooth jazz” sax player. I’ve spread the word as best as I could, for he is, to my ears, the Art Tatum of jazz organ… he’s THAT good.
The one blues act that Lockwood took me to see/hear was Nathaniel Savage (a/k/a Guitar Slim), a guitarist out of the Li’l Ed, Hound Dog Taylor, J.B. Hutto school of playing: a high energy group of four. His band included two brothers John and R.B. Winston on guitar and bass guitar, with James Jones on drums (who may show up later on in this piece). They had been playing together some fifteen years or more at that point in time, and were tighter than a crab’s ass (arse: UK), and that’s waterproof! Once again, surplus time and money ran out before I could get Slim and his band into the studio. Sad, but true.
But I was privileged to be able to hang with Robert. I got to meet his mother and some relatives from St. Louis and further South, and I did find time and money to take him with his band into an area recording studio (Nashville North in Parma, Ohio). It was a good eight-track studio, my first, but of course studios were old hat for Robert – so we got into album two. Since I was going to be there and was a major jazz fiend (still am), I wanted to do a jazz album with Maurice Reedus-el as well. In anticipation, he had gotten together with some local players and rehearsed a bunch of tunes for the session… neither of us wanted just another blowing date, for there were enough of those about already. Murphy’s (or Sod’s, as Bastin would style it) Law of course kicked in at this point and all the musos (including George Cook) backed out at the last minute, leaving us with a dilemma (and the likelihood of another blowing date). Maurice called around to find out who his real friends were – the drummer, Drew Evans, drove all the way from East Lansing, MI through an early December snow storm – so he could round up a quorum for the recording date. The line-up ended up being Maurice’s tenor sax with organ/guitar/drums for nine of the eleven tunes recorded (the organist played bass on the foot pedals in true Black lounge fashion) with Maurice, Jr. added on alto sax for two numbers. His son was in town as a member of the touring band backing The O’Jays and brought his horn into the studio in the middle of the session! All in all, and in spite of all the obstacles, the results are excellent. Sadly, it remains unreleased and Maurice has since died.(1)
The following day, Robert and his band assembled in the studio with one change and one addition from the last LP – Jimmy Jones had replaced Cookie on drums, and Mark Hahn was added on guitar. Jimmy was a bit more old-fashioned in his playing than Cook, but he more than filled the bill, to Robert’s surprise and pleasure. Hahn was then a slip of a nineteen-year-old who had learned at the feet of the master and so knew his chords better than any kid I’d ever heard… and he could solo! Today he goes by the soubriquet of “Cleveland Fats”, so there must be a lot more to him these days! Five songs were taped after much getting all the kinks and levels set – it was then discovered that the band was out-of-tune with itself, so we called it a day, leaving everything set up so that we could jump in and hit it the next day (no gig that night). And so it came to pass that sixteen songs were laid down “live”, one after another, and eleven were culled out for the eventual LP, “…does 12”. The title comes from the electric twelve-string guitar that Robert’s then-wife Annie had recently given him, although not all the tunes were done on it. The faithful Gretsch Country Gentleman was there for the open tuning slide work; the rest done on his new 12. Once again, the material ran the gamut from down home barrelhouse to uptown bebop, and beyond, as only the great Robert Lockwood could do. Nobody had so much musical knowledge in him as he and he could also put it into practice.
Critically, this album received even higher critical praise (save for the usual tin-eared BU Pommie), including rave reviews from a variety of newspapers and magazines. It was even reviewed twice in the San Francisco Chronicle, once by their jazz reviewer (Ralph J. Gleason) and once by their pop/rock critic (whose name eludes me at the moment)! But that didn’t really translate into sales. I did the best I was capable of in the way of marketing [not my strong suit by a long shot](2), but it just didn’t happen, and not for lack of quality. I maintained catalogue sales after that, released the Honeyboy Edwards and had planned on releasing the Reedus album after that, with a John Cephas record to eventually follow. The Reedus was mastered and I was part way to a final cover layout for it, but the business in the late seventies was lousy for blues. I had a typically great sense of timing to start a blues record company when the next to last blues boom was fading out (early 70s).
I sold the LP masters to Joe Fields before the next one began and will probably be reunited with my session tapes (which I retain) just in time to see it fade away as well! Such is life. In 1980 I was at university in folklore/folklife (3) and my life took some changes in direction – I kept selling catalogue as best I could while in Philly, but by the late eighties it had dried up for me. I still love the music and I still hate the business (but not the people I’ve met as a result) – by that point in time I could do no more and no better. That was it, then. Someday I hope to assemble the 40-50 CDs of good material from my tapes in storage and let somebody else put it out… I have at least learned my lesson and am not a total masochist (see Lockwood’s “Mr. Down Child” for a rule of life). But, thank you, Robert, for the music and everything.
- (1) The album (Trix 3318; “Get Outta Town, Man”) was to be my next release – I even had my friend Bob Porter, the NY area’s foremost sax maniac, write the notes. But the combination of lack of income from Trix and changes in my life resulted in it hanging fire. Joe Fields never got around to releasing it (along with the Homesick James solo LP) and what will happen with JVC/Savoy now (after passing through 32 Records hands) is anybody’s guess. Maurice deserved better.
- (2) I even had T-shirts made up with a pointilistic head portrait of Robert (that I had gotten from him) on the front with his name in the same lettering as the LP jacket, the LP title on the back in similar fashion. These were sent out to writers, DJs, and distributors, and Robert got some to sell at gigs as well. I am not a salesperson, he said almost redundantly – that was the best I could do!
- (3) It seemed like a good idea at the time… I had lost writing jobs that I would have gotten in the past because of a lack of academic credentials. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea, but I did meet a lot of really great people at Penn while I was there. Now it’s hopeless… I’m too old, too White, and too male to be employed academically in the US as a card-carrying folklorist with my expertise in African American musics. As for here in Australia, no way!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #179 – May 2003, p.21.