Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s foremost blues musicians. . . that you probably never heard of. He was born Robert Lee McCollum in Helena, Arkansas on November 30, 1909, but blues aficionados know him as Robert Nighthawk.
“In many ways,” writes an anonymous author at the site Sunday Blues,” Nighthawk was the archetype of the classic bluesman spending his entire adult life rambling all over the South [where he was popular] with frequent trips to the North playing a never ending string of one nighters punctuated by sporadic recording dates. … Nighthawk influenced a generation of artists including Elmore James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and particularly Earl Hooker.”
His percussive style of guitar playing bore a resemblance to that of Muddy Waters, at whose first wedding Nighthawk played in 1932. While blues is noted for its immediacy, he achieved an intensity with his stinging tones that few could match. He played “Sweet Black Angel” at least as well as B.B. King who covered it as “Sweet Little Angel.”
Like other outstanding blues musicians, Nighthawk sang as well as he played. Often behind the beat, his voice had a crooning quality. As noted blues writer Peter Guralnick pointed out, Nighthawk could have been steered in the direction of Bobby Blue Bland or Brook Benton.
Also like other blues artists, Nighthawk suffered from some, uh, character defects. He was known to stiff his sidemen out of their pay and, at one point, lived in a hotel with his wife while his girlfriend stayed in a room down the hall. Sunday Blues again: “Trying to untangle Nighthawk’s relationships is confusing since he was married many times, sometimes at the same time.”
Also, perhaps because of his peripatetic nature, he failed to benefit from, “the blues revival spurred by whites in the sixties started by folkies and crescendoing in white musicians copying their songs and citing them as influences and then playing with them and appearing with them.”
If you take a moment to view and listen to the video below, you’ll see and hear not only one of America’s finest blues musicians but a slice of Americana. It’s a clip from And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell St., a 1964 documentary. Maxwell Street was the location of a huge open-air market, and one of the first that trafficked in cheap goods from overseas (not to mention merchandise that “fell off the truck.”) Also, its clubs were the home of Chicago blues. Playing in the market was a Sunday morning ritual for blues musicians during the milder months.
In this clip you see what look like church-goers in their Sunday best. Many are already drinking and grooving to the music. Perhaps because Robert Nighthawk didn’t stay in Chicago long, they obviously didn’t take him for granted. The date was also captured on one of the finest blues albums ever: Robert Nighthawk’s Live on Maxwell Street. (“Recorded by Norman Dayron at the corner of 14th and Peoria, Chicago, Illinois, September 1964.”)