Robert Nighthawk

Robert Nighthawk (far right) and the Nighthawks.
Robert Lee McCollum aka Robert Lee McCoy aka Robert Nighthawk.
Ernest Lane, Robert Nighthawk, Hazel McCollum.

The First Rockabilly Record? Dig the slap bass, 1951.

Recording as “The Nighthawks”, 1949.

His First Disc For the brothers Chess, 1948.

At Home 2010.

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.

Robert Nighthawk & Link Wray- Two Guys I Never Met….

     I know I just posted this clip (see the Ike Turner posting) but it’s so great and it fits today’s subject Robert Nighthawk so here it is again, from the film …and this is Free a documentary about Maxwell Street in Chicago’s Jewtown section which used to be a flea market and gathering place for street musicians every Sunday. The city tore down all of Maxwell St. and moved it across the road into a mall several years back so scenes like these are long gone as is Mr. Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum in Helena, Arkansas, Nov. 30 1909, next year is his centennial. He died on Nov. 5, of ’67 just before the blues revival that might have put a few bucks in his pockets arrived).
     Nightawk had a long recording career in years, short in output. He recorded under the name of Robert Lee McCoy for BlueBird in ’37-38, and again billed as “Peetie’s Boy” (to cash in on the popularity of William Bunch aka Peetie Wheatstraw “The Devil’s Son In Law”) in 1940. After World War II he changed his name to Robert Nighthawk (supposedly on the run from the law, but who knows…).  His post war sides are great, some of them are almost rockabilly (, best are the ones recorded for the United and States labels which are incdredibly rare although they’ve been re-issued on the Pearl label which is owned by Delmark (which is owned by the guy who runs the Jazz Record Mart, one of the last great record stores in the U.S.). A 78 of “Maggie Cambell” just sold on Ebay for over $500 (the financial meltdown doesn’t seem to have effected the price of rare records yet, at least not the ones I want). He recorded for Aristocrat (which became Chess) in ’48 and ’49, I have a Japanese LP of all those recordings which are also scattered about on various compilations. Here’s one of  rockers, his version of  “Kansas City Blues.  Oddly enough Ernest Tubb would cover this one and his version (here) is as bluesy as Nighthawks’ is country. Don’t you love the way Tubb says “chump”? “Nighthawk cut a last session for the Testament label in ’66 with his guitar teacher Houston Stackhouse. Here’s a five song tribute with some interview stuff spliced in, taken from an old aircheck. The tunes are “Prowlin’ Nighthawk” from Blue Bird, 1937, “Maggie Cambell” issued on States in ’52, “”Goin’ Down To Eli’s” and “Anna Lee Blues” were recorded live on Maxwell Street in ’63 (and are from the film) and the final tune, a version of Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” is from the Testament LP

When talking about slide players, the old timers always put Robert Nighthawk at the top of the list, he was one blues man who really could play. He was so good he was hired to be the entertainment at Muddy Waters’ wedding party.

The Link Wray clip is from the Jack Spector TV show which showed locally in Providence, RI, an after school Bandstand type show. Not Link’s best tune but dig that Danelectro Longhorn! It’s the only early TV footage of Link I’ve ever stumbled across. He’ll be gone three years now this month, he died on Nov. 5, 2003. Here’s an aircheck set of five Link instrumentals to remember him by. The tunes are “Fat Back”, “Slinky”, “Vendetta”, “The Swag” and “The Earth Is Crying”. The good folks at Norton records have an incredible amount of Link Wray stuff in their catalogue including four volumes of rarities (Missing Links Vol.1-4), a double CD of the complete Swan Recordings, and best of all the Norton Jukebox 45 series which has a dozen killer 45’s which is still the best way to hear rock’n’roll.

Link lived in New York City for many years and played at Max’s many times and except to get a record signed I never really talked to him. The only impression I got of him was that he was rather nice and very taciturn. He did lend Quine his Ampeg amp which Quine used on much of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Blank Generation album.   Even when Link descended into bar band heavy metal in the later years, he shows always started off great, nobody could smoke a cigarette, play an E chord and walk backwards quite like Link could.
If you’re keeping up with the financial bail out plan you need to look at this.
I still think my plan was better (see “The Hound Saves Capitalism”). If Obama is serious about change something has to be done about the way business is done these days, as in, fuck the workers, fuck the stockholders, let’s downsize and/or out source to save money and redirect our savings to executive pay/bonus/benefit packages.
That bail out money that was supposed to jump start the banks is not being lent out, it’s being used to leverage buyouts and of course huge executive paychecks. Now that we have a guy headed to the White House that’s got our hopes up that he’s serious about doing the right thing I gotta wonder, is it even possible? Bush’s speech at the UN last week, where he blamed the financial meltdown on “too much regulation” needed a laugh track. The subtext however was painfully obvious– “we tried to give the poor blacks and Latinos home ownership, they just don’t deserve it”!    My prediction, to
paraphrase Hallie Sallasse is “War! War in the east, war in the west, war everywhere”.
Look at history and then look at the world. Pick your spot and watch it explode.
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