Live On Maxwell Street, 1964. From the film …And This Is Free (aka Maxwell St. Blues).
Robert Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum, Nov. 30, 1909 in Helena, Arkansas)– now there was a slide guitar player! He not only had the speed and accuracy of Tampa Red, but he had a unique, dirty, brooding style of playing that put him at the very top of the list amongst his peers. Muddy Waters liked him so much he hired him to play at his first wedding reception, a party that got so wild that the floor of the juke joint it was held in collapsed.
Young Robert had taken up playing harmonica as a tyke, and when his family relocated to a farm in Murphy Bayou, Mississippi he began playing the guitar under the tutelage of his cousin Houston Stackhouse. He was restless sort who spent most of his life on the road, legend has it he had killed a man in self defense back in Mississippi which led him to change his surname from McCollum (sometimes spelled McCullum) to his mother’s maiden name McCoy. With Stackhouse he traveled around Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, meeting and sometimes playing with better known bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes and Will Shade, even backing up country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers for a night.
By the mid-30’s he was in St. Louis where he fell in with a group of musicians that included Big Joe Williams, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Charley Jordan, Peetie Wheatstraw, Speckled Red and Walter Davis, this led him to his first recording contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary where he cut sides under the name of Robert Lee McCoy in 1937 and Ramblin’ Bob in ’38. These sides were very much in the Bluebird Records Chicago style popular at the time and one can hear the influence of Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold in his playing. On some of these recordings he is backed by Big Joe Williams (he of 9 string guitar fame), Speckled Red on piano and Sonny Boy Williamson on harp. The best of these sides include Prowlin’ Nighthawk, G-Man, Tough Luck, his first recording of Take It Easy Baby, Mean Black Cat, Freight Train Blues, and Ol’ Mose (aka Oh Red). In 1940 he waxed for Decca four sides, two of which feature his girlfriend Ann Sortier on vocals and washboard, Nighthawk was billed as “Peetie’s Boy”, an attempt to cash in on the fame of Peetie Wheatraw, the Devil’s Son-In-Law and Decca’s best selling blues artist of the day. He also appeared playing guitar and harmonica on records by other artists too numerous to mention here.
Never one to sit still for long, Robert Nighthawk was next sighted in Mississippi in 1942 where according to Big Joe Williams was leading a full band and playing electric guitar. It was electricity that became the final ingredient in Nighthawk’s sound and style, giving him a uniqueness that remains singular to this day. Back in Arkansas, he hosted a local radio show on KFFA sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour (the same company that would later sponsor Hank Williams) and Bright Star Flour, and among the musicians that passed through his band were his mentor Houston Stackhouse, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, and Ernest Lane. He would not record again until 1948 when he was signed to Chess who had been alerted to his talents by Muddy Waters. His cut three sessions for Chess in 1948, ’49 and ’50 resulting in three issued 78’s– Return Mail Blues b/w My Sweet Lovin’ Woman (Chess 1484), Black Angel Blues b/w Anna Lee Blues (Aristocrat 2301) and Jackson Town Gal b/w Six Three O (Aristocrat 413) and a handful of outtakes (my favorite being Someday) that would surface many decades later. Black Angel Blues was the closest thing he ever had to a hit, and would be the template for B.B. King’s Sweet Little Angel, one of King’s first hits. These discs were issued under the name of The Nighthawks (vocal by Robert McCullum), and later Robert Nighthawk and his Nighthawks, which would become his professional name until the end of his life. The Chess sides didn’t sell, Chess was putting all its promotional energy into their budding star Muddy Waters and they parted ways. In 1951 he was recording for Leonard Lee’s United label and its States subsidiary, these were his finest studio recordings. On the United/States discs, Nighthawk is backed by a rhythm section that consisted of Randsome Knowling on slap bass, Jump Jackson on drums and Roosevelt Sykes on piano. They issued three discs which appeared as follows: Kansas City Blues b/w Crying Won’t Help You (United 102), the a-side being a flat out rockabilly thumper later covered by Ernest Tubb on Decca, the flip featuring one of his most durable slide solos, Feel So Bad b/w Take It Easy Baby (United 105), and Maggie Campbell b/w The Moon Is Rising (States 131), again, the a-side, best known from Tommy Johnson’s 1928 Victor rendition, is taken at a rocking pace with predominant slap bass and Sykes’ barrelhouse piano. Given their 1951/52 release dates a case could be made by some someone who likes making cases that Nighthawk recorded the first examples of what we would later come to call rockabilly. All that’s missing is the hiccups. United and States would release no more discs by Robert Nighthawk but in 1978 the Pearl label (a subsidiary of Chicago’s Delmark Records) would issue the six sides along with some equally rocking outtakes — all excellent, as good as what was issued, including Seventy-Four, You Missed A Good Man, Feel So Bad, Bricks In My Pillow, an alternate take of Maggie Campbell, US Boogie, Nighthawk Boogie, and Take It Easy Baby on the LP Bricks In My Pillow (Pearl PL-11), one of the finest albums I’ve ever heard. This would pretty much end Robert Nighhawk’s recording career, although he would cut an album for Testament with Houston Stackhouse in 1967, his failing health had diminished his skills to the point that he could only play some perfunctory rhythm guitar behind Stackhouse’s leads.
The best recordings Nighthawk would make after the United and States discs, in fact, perhaps the best recordings he would ever make period, were recorded on Maxwell Street in Chicago’s Jewtown section one Sunday afternoon in 1964 by a film crew who were shooting the documentary …And This Is Free (the title was later changed to Maxwell Street Blues). Originally issued on vinyl in the early eighties by Rounder (with some tracks mislabeled including Mike Bloomfield’s rendition of Charlie Parker’s Ornithology being credited to Nighthawk), and then re-issued as a two-CD set with all the other performers that were filmed (including Johnny Young, Carey Bell, Big John Wrencher, Blind Jim Brewer and the ever popular Unknown) called And This Is Maxwell Street (Rooster). Here we get a rare earful of electric delta blues the way it was played in the jukes and at frolics, on the street and early morning radio broadcasts–distorted, dirty, and gloriously shambolic. Among the highlights are Robert Nighthawk’s seething version of Dr. Clayton’s Cheating and Lying Blues (aka I’m Gonna Murder My Baby), a foreboding Peter Gunn, the ever popular Dust My Broom, a rollicking Honey Hush, a medley of Annie Lee and Sweet Black Angel, the simmering I Need Love So Bad, and a chuggin’ take on Honky Tonk. The sound is so ominous, so brooding and foreboding, there are no other blues recordings even close to these. Shortly after the filming, Nighthawk headed back down south, his health was failing and he knew he didn’t have long. He took over Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller)’s King Biscuit Flour radio show on KFFA when Williamson died in ’65, but he was fading fast. Convinced he had been poisoned with bad whiskey (the same way Robert Johnson went), Houston Stackhouse took him to a hoodoo woman healer in Arkansas who diagnosed him as having “old time dropsy”, she told him had he not been a sinner, if he had lived a Christian life, she would have been able to heal him, but her magic could not undo a life in the blues, and on Nov. 5, 1967 he died in a hospital in Helena, Arkansas, the death certificate sighting “congestive heart failure due to myocardial infaction”, no mention of “old time dropsy” or his life as a sinner. Among his peers, Robert Nighthawk was not only well liked, but well respected, he was the bluesman’s bluesman, the favorite slide player of Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, and Earl Hooker. Mine too. Robert Nighthawk may have never had a hit record, and he didn’t live long enough to cash in on the white blues revival, but he had his own sound, dark and ominous, it’s lost none of its power.
Essential Robert Nighthawk: The sound samples here are just that, if you like what you hear, I suggest buying them and hearing it in its full glory. The complete Bluebird and Decca pre-war recordings can be found on the Catfish label’s Robert Lee McCoy:Prowling Nighthawk (Catfish CD 150), although the label is out of biz, the CD is still easy to find. His Chess output was issued on Charly Records Black Angel Blues (CD Red 29) on which his twelve Chess/Aristocrat sides share a CD with Forrest City Joe’s ten tracks, again, it’s out of print but easy to find. Pearl/Delmark issued Bricks In My Pillow (Delmark DD-711) as a 14 track CD in 1998, it’s still in print and is an essential purchase. The live Maxwell Street recordings have been issued in several different forms, but for sound and completion, I suggest getting the triple CD box– And This Is Maxwell Street (Pearl). It has tons of music not seen in the film, all of it great, and a long interview with Nighthawk by Mike Bloomfield. Speaking of the film, And This Is Free: The Life and Times Of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell St. was released on DVD in 2008 and is available from Amazon in a multi disc package (one DVD, one CD, one booklet), again, it’s pretty essential as the above clip proves.