Robert Lewis Jones (October 12, 1925 – April 2, 1996), known as both Guitar Gabriel and Nyles Jones, was an American blues musician. Gabriel’s unique style of guitar playing, which he referred to as “Toot Blues”, combined Piedmont, Chicago, and Texas blues, as well as gospel, and was influenced by artists such as Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis. After hearing of Guitar Gabriel from the late Greensboro, North Carolinablues guitarist and pianist, James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, musician and folklorist Tim Duffy located and befriended Gabriel, who was the inspiration for the creation of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Gabriel wore a trademark white sheepskin hat, which he acquired while traveling and performing with Medicine Shows during his late 20s. Gabriel was born in Decatur, Georgia, moving to Winston-Salem, North Carolina at age five. His father, Sonny Jones (also known as Jack Jones, James Johnson, and as Razorblade for an act in which he ate razor blades, mason jars, and light bulbs) recorded for Vocalion Records in 1939 in Memphis, accompanied by Sonny Terry and Oh Red (George Washington). Sonny Jones also recorded a single for the Orchid label in Baltimore in 1950 (as Sunny Jones). His family, who grew up sharecropping, shared a talent for music. His great-grandmother, an ex-slave, called set dances and played the banjo; his grandfather played banjo and his grandmother the pump organ; his father and uncle were blues guitarists and singers and his sisters sang blues and gospel
In 1935, Gabriel’s family moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he began playing guitar on the streets. Between the ages of 15 and 25, Gabriel traveled the country playing the guitar in medicine shows. During his travels, he performed with artists such as Bo Diddley, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. In 1970, Gabriel went to Pittsburgh and recorded a single, “Welfare Blues,” as well as an album, My South, My Blues, with the Gemini label under the name “Nyles” Jones. The 45 became a hit in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and though the album sold well, Gabriel never saw any royalties. Disillusioned and embittered by the music business, Gabriel returned home to Winston-Salem where he continued playing music, but expressly for his community, at churches, homes, clubs, “drink houses,” and even at bus stops when children were returning home from school. The album, My South, My Blues was reissued in 1988, on the French label, Jambalaya, as Nyles Jones, the Welfare Blues.