It would be stretching the truth to say that Lonesome Jimmy Lee Robinson was a bunch of fun. On the other hand, he always turned up on time and did his job, that is singing, playing guitar and bass guitar, extremely well. He didn’t, at least in my presence, drink heavily nor dabble in exotic herbs and I never did hear of him ever punching anybody out.
But to spend nearly seven weeks on the road through UK and Europe, with him, on the tour bus and in hotels, well, that wasn’t the most exhilarating of experiences, with his demeanour varying from introspective to unremittingly sullen. On stage, however, he always delivered, never put a foot wrong, though I just couldn’t help wishing that he got a little more fun out of doing it.
The tour was American Blues Legends ’75 with Homesick James, Tommy Tucker, Little Joe Blue, Eddie Guitar Burns, Billy Boy Arnold and Jimmy with the Big Bear omnipresent Pete York on drums.
Eddie Playboy Taylor, who had featured on our American Blues Legends ’74 tour, and was a longtime cohort of Jimmy’s, called me to suggest I bring over Jimmie on one of our tours, pointed out how useful it would be with him doubling on bass and guitar.
When I met the guys off the red-eye at Heathrow, Jimmie immediately took me aside with a gruff, “We gotta talk”. I assumed that it was a life or death situation and clearly to Jimmie it was. He reckoned, “That damn fool airline gone and lost my guitar”, and told me in no uncertain terms that I had to replace it, “cos those folk out there gonna expect to hear me play that acoustic,” which was a pretty convincing argument. Once again, I put the arm on the ever-patient Garry Chapman, now the man at Fair Deal Music, and he rented me a brand new instrument.
The tour went swimmingly – how could it have been otherwise with such a bunch of great musicians? – and once more I was staggered by how these guys, many of them, including Jimmie, accustomed to working a menial day job and just playing evenings on Maxwell Street Market and Chicago’s clubs, would walk on stage, fearless and with swagger, and be so comfortably at home playing in front of 500 or 600 people. It was as if they had never done anything else but that.
At the tour’s end, as on earlier American Blues Legends tours, with all the guys suitably run in and comfortable with the repertoire and with each other, we recorded an album. This time I decided to hire Richard Branson’s Virgin Manor Mobile Recording Unit and record live at The 100 Club on Oxford Street in front of the usual wildly enthusiastic audience. It was a special night with guests Jon Lord of Deep Purple, guitarist Martin Stone of Mighty Baby and Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and the Big Bear Records go-to piano player, Bob Hall – all of them appearing on the resultant album.
The next morning I saw them off at Heathrow airport, and they flew to O’Hare, with Jimmy conveniently forgetting to return my guitar. I settled with Garry and put it down to experience, though somewhere inside me I rather liked the idea that I had been taken so neatly. Neither of us mentioned it again, as if by tacit mutual agreement.
Jimmie Lee Robinson, in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, who were born and raised in Mississippi and made their own way to the Windy City, was born in Cook Country, Chicago in 1931. He was raised by his grandparents, sang in church and was taught guitar by neighbour Blind Percy. At 11 years old, Jimmie was playing for tips on Maxwell Street and going out as a double, playing clubs and street corners with Blind Percy from 1944 to 1949. He got to know Eddie Playboy Taylor and worked with him for around four years before Jimmie put together his first band, The Early Hours Blues Boys, which featured Freddie King who Jimmie had met outside a Welfare Centre. Freddie was later to credit Jimmie as his early influence.
It all got a little blurred around this time as he briefly attended the Chicago School of Music around 1949 and 1950, before serving time in Cook County Jail in 1950 and 1951.
Jimmie played local clubs with Elmore James until the mid-1950s when he joined Little Walter’s band where he stayed for some three years, taking over the vocal duties when Walter got himself shot. He left due to what Jimmie referred to as “personal issues”. Subsequently, he played the clubs with some of Chicago’s big hitters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Slim, Jimmy Reed and Willie Mabon, as well as taking trips to New York to record with St. Louis Jimmy Oden and Shakey Jake for Bluesville Records. He recorded three singles under his own name for Bandera Records, including the 1960 “All My Life” which was to become more-or-less his signature tune and was covered by John Mayall Blues Band.
He first came to UK and Europe on the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival tour in the company of Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker. The tour, organised by Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau, really should have been his springboard into more and better gigs, but he was seriously affected by the death of his mother and decided to try to live what he considered to be a normal life. In 1966 he changed his name to J.L. Latif Aliomar as part of his religious conversion to Islam and opened a candy store, before taking a job as a security guard with The Chicago Board of Education. He continued to perform locally, often with his longtime friend Little Willie Anderson and in 1975 embarked on the Big Bear American Blues Legends tour of that year. Back in Chicago, he continued to perform until the 1980s when again he gave up on music, this time to work as a carpenter and then as a cab driver.
In the late 1980s he was lured out of retirement by local blues outfit The Ice Cream Men, and again became serious about his music. He recorded his first studio album, “Lonely Traveller” for Delmark Records in 1994 which was followed by “Guns, Gangs and Drugs” , “Maxwell Street Blues”  and the solo acoustic album for APO, “All My Life” in 2001.
He had become a member of The Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition and in 1998 undertook what became a 91-day fast in protest at the proposed demolition and gentrification of Maxwell Street, in 2000 performing his “Maxwell Street Teardown Blues” on that street. Despite all of the efforts of Jimmie and a lot of other right-thinking folk the street was demolished to enable the expansion of the University of Illinois in Chicago campus.
In 2002 Jimmie was diagnosed with a malignant cancer, which spread. Just four days after his operation he performed at The Deep Blues Club celebration of his 71st birthday and on July 6th that year he was found dead in his car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.