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Robert Nighthawk was a rambling man who often traveled to Chicago, playing to his heart's content on Sunday afternoons at the famed open-air market along Maxwell Street. But, his heart belonged in the Mississippi Delta and it continuously called him home. Because of his wandering ways, Nighthawk's recorded output is minimal. But, without his influence, the sound of the Blues and modern guitar may have taken a different turn altogether, leaving names such as Elmore James and Earl Hooker with little if any meaning today.
Helena, Arkansas sits along the banks of the Mississippi River approximately 70 miles south of Memphis. The small town has always served as an important river port for the rich farming communities surrounding it and was also the site of a major battle during the Civil War. During the first half of the 20th century, the city also became a favorite stop for itinerant Blues musicians.
It was there that Robert Lee McCollum was born on November 30, 1909. By the time he was 15, young Robert had learned to play the harmonica from an obscure musician from Louisiana by the name of Johnny Jones. Robert soon felt confident enough playing the harp that he decided to leave home and took to the life of a busking musician. And, for the remainder of his life, he was ever on the move.
His early travels reportedly took him to Memphis, where it is reported that while still a teenager, he worked with Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. And, by 1930, he had apparently reached as far north as St. Louis, playing alongside pianist, Peetie Wheatstraw. This position earned the youngster the moniker Peetie's Boy.
Back home in the Delta, Robert's life took a significant turn when he met his distant cousin, Houston Stackhouse, that same year. A year younger than Robert, Stackhouse was a guitarist deeply influenced by the style of Tommy Johnson. In turn, he introduced Robert to the rudiments of playing guitar, and it wasn't very long afterwards that Robert soon surpassed Stackhouse on the instrument.
The two began to travel together throughout Mississippi and Arkansas playing at fish fries, house parties or wherever they could make money to survive. In 1932, they even found themselves playing at a wedding on Stovall Plantation for none other than Muddy Waters. Robert's travels found him in many locales and playing with a number of future Blues greats during the early-1930s such as Jimmy Rogers and John Lee Hooker.
In 1935, Robert was involved in a shooting incident that caused him to flee the Delta in fear of his safety, though unknown to him, the injuries were non-fatal. He returned to St. Louis, where he began performing under his mother's maiden name as Robert Lee McCoy. He took up again working with Peetie Wheatstraw, as well as with other popular local artists, such as John Lee "Sonny Boy " Williamson and Big Joe Williams. In 1936, he accompanied Jack Newman into the studio and made his way onto record for the first time, cutting sides for Vocalion. On May 51 of the following year, he joined Sonny Boy and Big Joe Williams on a session for Bluebird. Several sides were cut, including the classics "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "Sugar Mama". Six sides were also pressed and released under his own name. The most significant of these being "Tough Luck" and "Prowling Night Hawk". The next three years proved to be Robert's most productive period as a recording artist. Twenty-five sides were made as the featured artist for both Vocalion and Decca, plus numerous sides as a session performer working with the likes of Henry Townsend, Walter Davis, Speckled Red, Sleepy John Estes and many others.
Robert performed extensively with John Lee Williamson as the harmonica player's backing guitarist through most of 1937, only to be replaced the following year by another famed player, Big Bill Broonzy. Sonny Boy's popularity took Robert throughout the South and Midwest, eventually landing him in Chicago. There, he met guitar master, Tampa Red, whose work with the slide guitar enchanted him. Slide guitar was not new to Robert; it had been a staple of players throughout the Delta since the turn of the Century. But, it was another modern innovation that Robert combined with the slide style that would change the sound of Blues and modem music forever.
The electric guitar was a fairly new instrument in the late-1930s. Robert combined his new found fondness for playing slide with the amplified guitar and created an eerie sound that quickly caught the attention of several young musicians. Perhaps its greatest influence occurred when Robert returned to the Delta with this style. The haunting tone enamored a trio of players who took the electric slide to new heights and whose own fame surpassed that of Robert's. That trio was Earl Hooker, Elmore James and Muddy Waters.
Despite the success he had found in Chicago and St. Louis, Helena was Robert's true home. He settled there once more and started calling himself Robert Nighthawk, from the title of his Bluebird recording, "Prowling Night Hawk". From 1943 to 1947 he was a featured performer on local radio station KFFA, hosting a show for Bright Star Flour, in direct competition with the same station's popular Blues and Heritage Fest Flour Show hosted by Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II). During this same period, he often hosted shows on WROX in Clarksdale and the famed WDIA station in Memphis.
In 1948, Nighthawk was once again in Chicago. Upon the recommendation of his slide disciple, Muddy Waters, he found himself at the Aristocrat (later named Chess) Studios. The session he cut in November produced three sides. But, his next venture in July of the following year yielded the successful double-sided hit, "Anna Lee" b/w "Sweet Black Angel". The latter was to become Robert's most popular recording of his career. It was also noted as the first session for Chess to include the great Willie Dixon, who played bass behind Nighthawk on the recording. Later re-titled as "Sweet Little Angel", the song became a huge success for B.B. King in 1956. Nighthawk would return to Chess for one more session in 1950. He also recorded a handful of numbers for the United label in 1951 and its sister label States in 1952. The sides did not draw too much attention and Robert decided to return to the Delta. He would not return to Chicago nor record again until 1964.
One aspect of Chicago which Robert Nighthawk did enjoy was the open-air market of Maxwell Street held every weekend. Robert was one of countless musicians who set up on comers and in alleys, making money by performing on the street for the multitudes attracted by the market. Robert would often work here with such Chicago Blues luminaries as Big John Wrencher, Johnny Young, Carey Bell and John Lee Granderson. These Maxwell Street performances caught the attention of a young guitarist by the name of Michael Bloomfield, who was working with photographer Mike Shea on a project recording the activities of the market. A documentary was filmed entitled, "And This Is Free". In one scene, Robert Nighthawk is captured in an alley playing "Down At Eli's". A complete set of a Nighthawk performance, "Live On Maxwell Street 1964", was also released in 1980 by Rounder Records (recently re-released on Bullseye Blues). This recording found Robert in peak form and also includes some stellar harmonica work from Carey Bell.
Nighthawk made his way back into the studio in 1964 doing sideman work for Chess and Decca, plus two sessions with Testament Records as a featured artist. These 1964 dates which included backing from Little Walter, Johnny Young and Big John Wrencher, were later mixed with a session from the summer of 1967. Perhaps some of the most fascinating recordings of his career, the Testament dates featured brilliant slide guitar on numbers such as "Crying Won't Help You" and "Bricks In My Pillow". Unfortunately, they would also be his final works, released posthumously with selections with his cousin Houston Stackhouse as "Masters Of Modern Blues - Robert Nighthawk and Houston Stackhouse".
Robert Nighthawk had long been suffering with poor health and he returned to the Delta where he spent his time between Helena and the home of his son, Blues drummer Sam Carr, in Dundee, Arkansas. In November 1967, Nighthawk was admitted to the hospital in Helena. He died there on November 5th of congestive heart failure. Robert Nighthawk is buried in Helena's Magnolia Cemetery.
Electric slide guitar has become a staple of modem music. Though the idea of combining the electric guitar with slide playing surely would've come about regardless of Robert Nighthawk's presence, he is considered the first Blues artist of stature to utilize the technique. His legacy carried on wit the playing of Elmore James, Earl Hooker, and later by JB. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor and Duane Allman. Though his name is not as recognizable as those who followed, he'll forever be remembered as the progenitor of the electric slide. This feat was recognized by The Blues Foundation, when they entered the name of Robert Nighthawk into its Hall of Fame in 1983.