By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
A blues legend is set to hit the stage in Ashtabula. On Nov. 27 and again on Dec. 21, Vernon Jones Blues Cartel will play at Briquettes on Bridge Street. Band leader and drummer Jones said the group is dedicated to the music and memory of Blues immortals Robert Johnson and Cleveland’s Robert “Junior” Lockwood, and he should know. He toured with Lockwood for years, playing his and Johnson’s music. Because of his efforts in live preservation of that Blues legacy, Vernon Jones has already carved his own niche as a blues legend.
“I want to keep the music of Robert Lockwood and Robert Johnson alive,” Jones said of his musical mission. “It’s just that simple.”
According to Jones, what makes the legacy story interesting is the direct relationship between Cleveland’s Robert Lockwood Jr. and Robert Johnson.
“Lockwood was Johnson’s stepson,” Jones said. “He was directly influenced by his guitar playing.”
Johnson was a blues guitar star on Bluebird and other ‘race record’ labels in the 1920s and 1930s. He was the author of the famed song “Crossroads,” which has been covered by blues, rock and even country groups. Much like the virtuoso classical violinist Paganinni, Johnson was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil. According to legend, the deal was struck at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Route 49 in Mississippi. Today most people accept the fact that Johnson’s blues guitar genius was his own, and not satanically inspired.
When Lockwood moved to Cleveland from Arkansas after Johnson’s fame, he brought Johnson’s music with him. It was red clay Mississippi delta blues. This was the music Lockwood, and now Jones, helped make famous. Lockwood’s hey day was in the 1950s and 1960s playing on Chicago blues record labels like Chess and Trix. At age 90 Lockwood was still playing seven years ago in Cleveland and around the nation.
“I toured with Lockwood for 10 years as a replacement percussionist and drummer,” Jones said. “I did that until he died in 2006. I’m eternally grateful that Robert gave me the opportunity to play his music and to reach new audiences with it.”
Jones has been a drummer for more than 40 years and got his start playing R&B at age 17. He has been working with the Blues Cartel for about four years now and has played plenty of big gigs around the nation. He has played with blues legends like Matt Guitar Murphy, Pinetop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, Elmore James’s brother Homesick James and many others. Jones was a regular at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.
After 9/11 he played with Buddy Miles’s “Rage Against Terrorism Tour,” based out of New York.
“It was a strange feeling playing there then,” Jones said. “Even months after the attack you could still smell the burnt airplane fuel and building material.”
Despite all the important high prestige engagements Jones has played around the country, he said he still enjoys gigging in Ashtabula.
“For such a small town, there is such a great blues-savvy audience,” he said. “They’re receptive and it’s a nice relaxed atmosphere. I love to play in Ashtabula.”
Jones said he was going to introduce some new players at the Briquettes gig.
“It’s a four-piece and sometimes five-piece band,” Jones said. “Blues Cartel has two guitarists, bass, keyboards and drums. There’s also blues harp (harmonica) and sometimes sax.”
Jones said the Blues Cartel at Briquettes will consist of D.C. Carnes of Lorain on guitar, Bobby Lafferty of Brunswick on guitar, Jeff Rice of Akron on keyboard, sax and blues harp, Rob Hill of Avon Lake on Bass and Vernon Jones on drums. Carnes and Hill sing, but everyone gets a shot at it once in a while.
“It’s a great lineup,” Jones said. “It’s a blessing to have this kind of talent working with you.”
The Blues Cartel’s show at Briquettes on Nov. 27 will coincide with the seventh anniversary of Robert “Junior” Lockwood’s death, a fitting tribute to the man who defined the genre of blues music for the last three decades. Jones said he is also currently working on developing a Holiday Blues Jam in honor of Lockwood’s memory to play in January. The Briquettes shows start at 9 p.m.