Born: November 30, 1909 in Helena AR
Died: November 5, 1967 in Helena AR
Although many know his name, few really know his music, and bluesman Robert Nighthawk is nearly as big an enigma as Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. Through a lengthy career that spanned four decades, Nighthawk recorded only sporadically and his rambling nature prevented him from becoming a well-known performer in any area. Still, his influence was pervasive, his unique slide-guitar style emulated by artists like Elmore James, Earl Hooker and, most importantly (for the evolution of the blues), Muddy Waters.
Raw Slide-Guitar Sound
Born Robert Lee McCollum (spellings vary) in Helena, Arkansas, not much is known about Nighthawk's early life. He taught himself to play harmonica, but he was in his early 20s before his cousin, bluesman Houston Stackhouse, schooled him in the rudiments of blues guitar. Nighthawk was evidently a good student, as he was soon performing in juke-joints and house parties as McCollum with Stackhouse, throughout Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta.
Nighthawk developed a unique and particularly raw slide-guitar sound firmly based in the Delta country-blues tradition. For reasons known only to the bluesman himself, Nighthawk moved to St. Louis during the mid-1950s and took on his mother's name, performing as Robert Lee McCoy alongside artists like John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Big Joe Williams. Nighthawk cut his first recordings, both solo as McCoy and as a sideman, for Bluebird Records in 1937.
A Wandering Soul
During the 1930s and early-40s, Nighthawk performed and recorded under a variety of names, including Robert Lee McCoy, Rambling Bob, and Peetie's Boy. Prone towards wanderlust, Nighthawk performed from the Delta to the Windy City, and all points in between, often playing on street corners for tips and picking up the odd gig at a fish fry or house party. While in Chicago, he was befriended by Tampa Red, whose influence brought an additional dimension to Nighthawk's slide-guitar playing. It is thought that Nighthawk also spent some time playing in Memphis during this time.
Never content to staying in one place too long, though, Nighthawk returned to his hometown of Helena. In 1943, Nighthawk began performing regularly on a radio program broadcast by Helena radio station KFFA. Sponsored by Bright Star Flour, he was competing directly with Sonny Boy Williamson[/link">, who broadcast his show, sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, on the same station. Nighthawk also could be heard performing on other Southern radio stations, including WDIA in Memphis.
Becoming Robert Nighthawk
Nighthawk spent the latter part of the 1940s in obscurity as Robert Lee McCoy literally disappeared for almost half a decade. When he resurfaced, it would be as "Robert Nighthawk," the bluesman taking the name from the title of his first record, "Prowling Nighthawk." His student McKinley Morganfield (a/k/a Muddy Waters) helped Nighthawk land a contract with the Chess Records subsidiary Aristocrat. Nighthawk scored a minor hit in 1949 with the song "Black Angel Blues" but, following a familiar pattern, would leave Chicago and the label in 1950.
In the early-1950s Nighthawk recorded for the United Records label and its subsidiary States Records, but he enjoyed no further commercial success. During the rest of the 1950s and early-60s, Nighthawk wandered until he was "rediscovered" playing on Maxwell Street in Chicago by producer Norman Dayron. Nighthawk would resume his recording career in 1964 for Decca, returning to Helena in 1965 to take the reins of Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Time radio program on KFFA after the harp master's death. Nighthawk would pass away in 1967, and was inducted into The Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983.
Recommended Albums: Because of Nighthawk's rambling nature and reluctance to record, his musical legacy isn't as well documented as many of his peers. The Document Records compilation Prowling With The Nighthawk offers a comprehensive overview of Nighthawk's early recordings, the album featuring 26 tracks made from 1937 through 1952. Live On Maxwell Street 1964, literally recorded live on the street by producer Dayron, is a rare slice of blues life as it happened, street noise and all included.