Blues Greats – Robert Nighthawk

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Born Robert McCollum in Arkansas in 30th November 1909 Robert Nighthawk is not often mentioned in the same breath as many blues guitarists. However, he was an inspiration to many and deserves wider recognition as one of the true great.

He began his musical career playing harmonica but switched to the guitar by the early 30s having been taught the instrument by Houston Stackhouse. Together with his brother Percy the three of them played local juke joints and house parties to growing acclaim. This existence was cut short when Robert left the South to settle in Seattle. The reason for his move may have been connected to an incident involving a shooting but the veracity of this has not been established.

After this he called himself McCoy, his mother’s maiden name, playing with Sonny Boy Williamson accompanying him on some his Bluebird recordings. His own recordings were made under a number of names including, Rambling Bob, Peetie’s boy but he finally settled on Nighthawk after recording the evocative ‘Prowlin’ Nighthawk’.

He made an effortless transition to the electric guitar using his well honed slide guitar creating a sinuous style that influenced Muddy waters, Earl Hooker and Elmore James among others. He played as part of the band fronted by Sonny Boy Williams II on the King Biscuit Time radio show (it was about this time that Sonny Boy Williamson II invited Elmore James to record a track that would eventually become “Dust My Broom”).

Robert Nighthawk was introduced to the Aristocrat label that was to become Chess where he recorded his best work. Of particular note are his songs “Sweet Black Angel” and Anna Lee Blues”. In his life he did not make many recordings being a reluctant recording artist that may account for his obscurity but in 1964 he recorded 2 tracks “Sorry My Angel” and “Someday”. It may be a measure of the esteem in which he was held by other musicians that he was backed by both Buddy Guy and Walter Horton on the recordings.

He died in his hometown, Helena, on 5th November 1967. Not famous but very influential with a small but seminal body of recordings.