Musician helps out with Johnson plans

Published 5:00 am Monday, July 9, 2007

Much-acclaimed blues musician Rocky Lawrence, dressed in apinstripe three-piece suit and wool hat, walked down the traintracks on a hot Sunday afternoon in Hazlehurst.

“Why couldn’t I have picked a guy who wore a T-shirt andoveralls?” he said.

Lawrence was dressed as Hazlehurst’s own native blues legend,the late, great Robert Johnson, and he was posing for photographsto illustrate the walking trail that will soon be in place inJohnson’s hometown.

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“It’s a 15-year-old kid’s dream come true. I discovered RobertJohnson when I was 15, and I didn’t imagine it would take me thisfar, or how much of a part he would play in my life,” he said ofbeing able to pose as the musical icon.

Recently, Lawrence posed for photos on the railroad tracks, thecourthouse, and most interestingly, in the Hazlehurst Cemetery,where Johnson used to go to practice at night.

“Just to walk down the same streets Robert Johnson walked, totouch the same things he touched…” said Lawrence, who lives inNew Jersey. “This is a very revered place for me, it’s thebirthplace of my idol. Coming back here is like a Jewish persongoing to the Wailing Wall – this is my holy land, my old city, inthe same way Jerusalem is for them.”

Lawrence became the first African-American blues musician everfeatured on a national product when he was the face of twodifferent bags of Lay’s Potato Chips.

“That was one of the highlights of my career, and I made a lotof money on that,” he said. “But I thought about it in terms of allthe hours and blood and sweat and tears I’d put into the blues, andthought, ‘That’s like 2 cents an hour now.'”

That was the beginning of his financial success. But hesuspected he was on the right track long before that.

“But it was 1969 that I knew I had something different, andeveryone laughed,” he said. “They all asked, ‘Why are you doingJohnson? Why don’t you do Jimi Hendrix?’ And I knew, ‘No, I want tobe Robert Johnson.'”

Lawrence is the kind of man you’d never know was famous just totalk to him – until, that is, you hear him play the guitar orpiano. Then you hear the story of Rolling Stones guitarist KeithRichards’ Robert Johnson shrine, and it’s no surprise.

“Keith is a big Robert Johnson fan, and he has this fieldstonefireplace that he calls ‘his altar,'” said Lawrence, who said theonly things Richards keeps there is Robert Johnson paraphernalia.When Richards heard Lawrence’s CD, the dream of Lawrence’s inner15-year-old moved to a whole new level.

“His wife bought him my record because she thought he’d like it,and now he keeps my CD on the mantel next to his Robert Johnsonshrine,” he said beaming.

And that led to a great friendship.

“I heard the story and told a mutual friend, ‘Tell Keith I’mdoing a show with Honeyboy Edwards and I’d love for him to come,and I’d love to meet him,'” he said. “And then a few hours beforewe were supposed to perform, the phone rings, and it’s KeithRichards, saying, ‘I’m on my way down.’ We became goodbuddies.”

Richards saw Lawrence play that night, and the two grew to befast friends. Lawrence tells of a time Richards was even a littlejealous of him.

“I told him I was playing in Mississippi, and he was reallyexcited about it. He said, ‘Oh… Mississippi! The Stones never gotto play Mississippi,'” said Lawrence. “I told him it was fairbecause we all don’t get to fly on private jets with limos thatpick us up on the tarmac.”

Lawrence released his CD, “The Songs of Robert Johnson asPerformed By Rocky Lawrence” in November of 2000 to much criticalacclaim, and has been acknowledged by many music gurus as being theclosest living sound to that of Robert Johnson.

And he has walked in Johnson’s footsteps in more ways than one.He actually had the opportunity once to play a show with HoneyBoyEdwards and the late Robert Lockwood Jr., two musicians whoactually knew and played with Robert Johnson in the 1930s. Lockwoodactually lived with Johnson as a child, and received his firstguitar from him as a gift for his 11th birthday.

“Until Mr. Lockwood’s untimely death, Mr. Lockwood and Mr.Edwards were as close as you could get to Robert Johnson beingalive,” said Lawrence. “The night of the show at The FairfieldTheatre in Connecticut, Mr. Lockwood said, ‘In all my 91 years,I’ve never seen anybody look or sound more like Robert Johnson thanyou. I’m about to adopt you!’ My heart soared!”

Lawrence plans many, many returns to his music mecca. He creditshis love for the place not only to its heritage, but its people,especially the one he’s looked up to since he was a child.

“You can go as far north and south and east and west as you cango, and there are people celebrating this town’s native son,” hesaid. “As they say in the comic books, ‘Nuff said.'”