American roots music suffered a massive blow when blues master Robert Lockwood Jr. passed away last November -- but Cleveland was hit hardest. The guitarist's midweek engagement, an institution spanning three decades and two previous venues, provided his hometown with a direct link to the very core of the blues.
Despite losing their father figure, the resilient All Stars -- D.C., bassist Gene Schwartz, tenor-man Maurice Reedus, keyboardist Red Top, and drummer "Gator" Hoare -- soldiered on, even finding a new leader. Since mid-March, the band has been following a bluesman by the name of Mark Hahn, aka Cleveland Fats, Lockwood's greatest pupil. And while the jury's still out, the hope here is that Fats can carry on his teacher's music, and the blues will once again thrive downtown.
Fats has already received high marks from the joint's resident blues experts: the bartenders. When one tells him on his first night how his vocals sound uncannily like Robert's, Fats jokes back from his barstool, "Hell, I can even talk like him." Considering the hours the two logged together, he most likely can. A true blues survivor, with steady work on the road performing his own material, Fats has transformed Wednesday nights into a tribute to his mentor's music: the Robert Lockwood Jr. All Stars, featuring Cleveland Fats.
When a blues DJ from Hahn's Kent/Ravenna stomping grounds introduced him to Lockwood in 1974, he was already an avid student of the blues and well aware of Lockwood's legendary session work for Chicago's Chess Records back in the '50s. Proving wise far beyond his years, a teenage Hahn started sitting in with Lockwood's band at the Grapes of Wrath, which eventually led to regular lessons at the Lockwood home. There, Lockwood passed Hahn tricks of the trade that he himself absorbed from his own storied mentor, Robert Johnson, arguably the greatest Delta bluesman of the 20th century.
"He'd show me 'Kind Hearted Woman,' 'Ramblin',' and 'Steady Rollin' Man,' and I would come back and play in front of him, and he'd hear me fumblin' around," recalls Hahn while sitting at the bar, nursing a Miller Lite. "He'd laugh and say, 'Well, you're gettin' there.'"
Hahn's rapidly developing chops and eagerness to learn earned him a full-time spot in Lockwood's band. The teacher, in turn, christened him "Cleveland Fats" -- because Hahn's birth name wasn't a "blues name." After appearing on two LPs, Hahn struck out on his own in 1982, eventually releasing four critically acclaimed solo albums. The most recent, The Way Things Go, features Lockwood on "Dead or Alive," a tune the blues great penned expressly for his "boy."
Fortunately, Steve Zamborsky -- one of Fat Fish's managing partners -- is as impressed with Lockwood's protégé as his bar staff is. "It feels like Wednesdays again," he exclaims from his second-floor office at the club, where he has served as the All Stars' chief employer since 1989. Zamborsky goes on to recall the adversity facing the band just after Lockwood's passing. "They were making themselves get up there and do it. I really admire that."
Even though attendance is down, Zamborsky feels up about the tribute show's prospects, pointing out that the Lockwood name consistently brings downtown hotel guests in to check out the band -- which is the reason Mary Lockwood masterminded this very tribute. Phoning from her home on the East Side, Robert's widow and last manager recalls a night when she and Robert caught one of Fats' sets. "I told him, 'You know, Robert, Mark's singin' your songs quite well.' And he says, 'I imagine so -- I taught his little ass how to do it!'"
Several weeks after the rainstorm, snow swirls outside the windows directly behind the All Stars. Fat Fish was packed the previous week, with musicians and friends honoring Lockwood's birthday. But now the place is back to scant numbers after the dinner hour. These few folks, though, listen hard and are vocal in their approval. Week by week, Fats' sets grow stronger, and when he really digs into the music, it's obvious why the bartenders are so impressed.
Hahn's teacher would be proud.