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Robert Nighthawk


Bricks In My Pillow: The Robert Nighthawk Story

Robert Nighthawk

"Nobody else could play a slide like him.
They think they can but they can't....
I ain't never heard anybody play a slide like
Robert Nighthawk. It's wailin' man." *

Robert Nighthawk was one of the blues premier slide guitarists playing with a subtle elegance and a fluid, crystal clear style that was instantly recognizable. Nighthawk influenced a generation of artists including Elmore James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and particularly Earl Hooker. In many ways Nighthawk was the archetype of the classic bluesman spending his entire adult life rambling all over the South with frequent trips to the North playing a never ending string of one nighters punctuated by sporadic recording dates. Nighthawk's recording dates brought him only limited success but he remained popular in the South his entire life. Nighthawk's life remains somewhat indistinct; for one he never stayed in Chicago long enough to establish himself, he was interviewed only briefly and unlike many artists didn't appreciably benefit from the blues boom of the 1960's. The aim of this website is to shed light on this important bluesman and put his contributions in the proper historical context.

For all his influence Nighthawk remains a mostly neglected and mysterious figure. One reason was that he recorded very sporadically which saw only about a dozen scattered sessions from the 1930's up until his death in 1967. Though he consistently recorded strong material his record sales remained low. Another reason stems from the man himself who associates referred to as restless, taciturn and stubborn. "Nighthawk was polite but taciturn...He would grin, and occasionally "grandstand" on Maxwell Street or in a Club, he was usually serious; sometimes almost bitter." And as Henry Townsend commented:"You sure couldn 't dance off his blues - boy, they were as draggiest as they get! Nighthawk had ways more Iike Robert Johnson than anybody else that I know. Quiet conversation - you'd have to bring it out of him - just a quiet kind of guy." Others, however, have described Nighthawk in less somber terms. Charlie Musselwhite described him this way: "To me... he was real friendly, sort of reserved. He never lost his cool in any way; he was always in control, but not in control like "uptight", he was just a real smooth operator, you know?" Carey Bell relates: "He was a lot of fun. Tells a lot of lies. He was good at telling lies and jokes."

His apparent dislike for Chicago kept him away in for much of the 1950's when Chicago Blues was in it's golden age. "Well, that's about all I been doin' all my life....I been in Florida. I was down in Florida about three years and back up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa, New York and some other places."

Nighthawk was born Robert Lee McCollum in Helena, Arkansas, on Nov. 30 1909 to Ned and Mattie McCollum. Robert was one of three children which included a brother named Samuel and a sister named Ethel (there is said to be another sister named Margaret but both Nighthawk's daughter (Geni Ward) and his son (Sam Carr) say Margaret was a friend). As Nighthawk relates in a 1964 interview he came from a musical family: "Well all my people played music. Mother and dad and sister and brother and all. My brother played guitar. My brother helped me in all kind of ways. (My family) ...mostly played dances, parties, picnics and all that. When I left home I got right into it and I started blowing harmonica. I learnt that back in 24'. ...boy named Johnny Jones, he's from Louisiana, ...say he learn me so I did."

Nighthawk married for he first time in 1928 to Mary Griffen in Friars Point and they had two children, Sam the oldest, and Ludy the youngest. Sam grew up to be Sam Carr a well respected blues drummer. His parents left him when he was just a youngster and he was raised by the Carr family. Sam describes the situation: "I was adopted into the Carr family when I was one and a half years old. ...My mother had been dating Robert Nighthawk. ...My mother wanted to be out in the world following Robert, and I guess she went out on the road with him. ...I saw my daddy for the first time in 1933. I was seven years old. My daddy came by in a T-Model Ford, red. He was with Henry Townsend. I remember good. He told me he was my daddy "whether you believe it or not. I know you ain't seen me or know nothing about about me. I just want you to know I'm your daddy. ...I didn't see him no more untl 1937." He told him then "when you get a little bigger you can come over and stay with me, go with me to the radio station [KFFA] and hear me play." By the early 40's he was playing in his fathers' band working the door, acting as chauffeur and playing bass.

He learned guitar from Houston Stackhouse who he met in Mississippi in the late 20's or 30'. There's some confusion if Stackhouse was actually Nighthawk's cousin. However in an interview for Living Blues magazine he states: "...we're first cousins. Me and Robert were two sisters children." Stackhouse recalls meeting Nighthawk "In 26, I guess. '29, '30. He was haulin' seed from Estill to Hollandale and I was haulin' seed from Murphy Bayou to Hollandale on 61. We was day workin' on Mr. Torey Woods' farm out there at Murphy Bayou: plowin' mules, gettin' a dollar a day."

He Done Got Bad With It Then

Houston Stackhouse

Houston Stackhouse

Nighthawk credits Stackhouse with teaching him guitar. "I started guitar in 1931....Guy lived down in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, he, name a Houston Stackhouse, he learned me to play." Stackhouse emphasized: "I learned him how to play guitar, back in the 30's. I'd say, You ain't gon' eat nothin' till you get these notes right...He done got bad with it then when he come back from Chicago." Stackhouse himself learned from Tommy Johnson and his brothers Mager and Clarence. The first songs he taught Nighthawk were all songs Tommy Johnson recorded including "Big Road Blues", "Cool Water Blues" and Big Fat Mama." Stackhouse recalls first seeing Nighthawk blow harmonica in the early 30's: "Him and Willie Warren was playin' on the weekends at the Black Cat Drug Store in Hollandale then." Stackhouse and Nighthawk worked on a farm during the day while at night they played at dances and parties. Nighthawk increasingly roamed farther afield traveling all over the south meeting the likes of Charlie Patton, Will Shade, Muddy Waters, Eugene Powell (Sonny Boy Nelson), Tommy Johnson and likely Son House and Robert Johnson.

One of the musicians he knew particularly well was Muddy Waters. In an interview with Jim O'Neal he had this to say: "I knew him before I could pick nary a note on the guitar." They first met in Clarksdale as Waters elaborates: "We had one round circle-we all swam in that circle. Now he definitely knew Robert Johnson, because they all grew up around Friars Point way, from Friars Point over to Helena (Helena is just over the river in Arkansas), and I stayed from Clarksdale down to Rosedale, and Duncan, and Hillhouse, Rena Lara, and all them places. We had a circle we was going in." Nighthawk even played at Muddy's first wedding in 1932: "Robert Nighthawk played at my first wedding." The proceedings got so raucous that Muddy's floor collapsed.

In 1931 Nighthawk and Stackhouse got a chance to sit in with the legendary country singer Jimmie Rodgers. "We was on the streets there in Jackson playin' once, and he come along that evenin' ...What about gettin' you boys to play with me tonight? ...So we got ready and come on down there ...Went up there [the King Edward Hotel] and jumped with him. ... Jimmie Rodgers was playin' his numbers and Robert blowin' that harp pretty good right along with him. Make the harp kind of yodel, too...Yeah we had a good time that night."

Stackhouse and Nighthawk parted ways in 1932. "...At the time I when started him out on it, well, it wasn't long before he got apart then, in '32. We was in the Delta together, and he left me, he said, "well I'm goin' on to Friars Point, and then I'm goin' on from there to Chicago." Didn't see him no more from '32 until '46." Nighthawk apparently had his mind on making records early on as Muddy Waters relates: "Robert Nighthawk came to see me and said he was going to Chicago and get a record. He says you go along and you might get on with me. I thought, oh man, this cat is just jiving, he ain't going to Chicago. Finally he split, and the next time I heard [1937] he had a record out."

We Was Just Travelin' The Highway

Left: Robert Burse, Dick Rowles, Laura Dukes, Louis Allen, Wilfred Bell, Will Batts, late 30's
Listen to Laura Dukes sing Bricks In My Pillow, a song likley learned from Robert Nighthawk who recorded it in 1952

Nighthawk's early years aren't well documented but in a 1976 interview Laura Dukes sheds some light on his activities in the early 30's. In 1933 he partnered with singer Laura Dukes (known as "Little Laura" or "Little Bit") who he met in East St. Louis. Guitarist Joe Willie Wilkins remembers Dukes as an old girlfriend of Nighthawk's.26 In the late 20's and 30's she sang and danced at carnivals and medicine shows. Some of these shows employed full orchestra type bands with horns. It was with the Dan Hildrege Show that Dukes first met Nighthawk who was playing guitar in the show's orchestra. As Dukes recalls: "Robert McCollum he was on the show too! With me . . . he played in the orchestra, he played guitar in the orchestra, see." She also played banjo ukulele as she related: "after Robert McCollum and I got together, then he started teachin' me and that's when I bought me a four-string instrument." Nighthawk and her traveled together for a while: "We hitch-hiked but we never would try to catch rides. We would ride the bus, like that, but we was just travelin' the highway, just makin' extra money. Every store we'd stop in to get a lunch or something they'd want us to play 'em a piece....Robert would play guitar and I would play the banjo-ukulele. He would sing some songs and I would sing mine....He showed me about everything. Mostly we played blues and other songs."

Sometime around this period Nighthawk was staying in Memphis where he met Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams. Sleepy John Estes recalls meeting Nighthawk during this period: "I met him in West Memphis. He was playin'. He played a piece or two with us" [Estes and Hammie Nixon].30 During this time he also fronted a jug band but this group never recorded. While in Memphis he also played with a young John Lee Hooker circa 1932. Hooker recalled in a 1964 Blues Unlimited interview that "in Memphis I used to play sometimes with guys like Robert Nighthawk, Eddie Love, Joe Willard."

Big Joe Williams remembers seeing him in Friar's Point, Miss., across the river from Helena. "I knew him when he was a boy", Williams says. "I used to stay with him when I'd go through there and he played with me...he was a pretty good guitar player then. He couldn't lead- he was bassin' the guitar." Johnny Young remembers meeting Nighthawk in Vicksburg in the early thirties, playing guitar and harmonica. "So then we moved up to a place", Young recalled, "called Swains, place in Mississippi out from Memphis, Tennessee. I met Robert Nighthawk. So when I met Robert Nighthawk I got with him, I was blowing harmonica. ...So I star blowing harp with him. He play-Nighthawk was a hell of a good musician-he play slide. He was so good he almost made me cry."

It Was Somethin' About A Pistol

In 1935 Nighthawk left for St. Louis after getting into trouble and changed his name to Robert Lee McCoy (his mother's maiden name). Stackhouse recalls: "I heard he got in trouble in Louisiana once and had to take off and go up north or somewhere awhile. ...It was somethin' about a pistol, but they didn't say where he killed nobody. ...That's the reason he skipped cities, I think: to keep 'em from gettin' him and puttin' him in the pen." He related to Pete Welding that "he had to flee to avoid prosecution for a fatal shooting scrape in which he had been involved." Nighthawk was apparently already well known in the south by the time he headed to St. Louis as Muddy Waters recalls: "Oh, he was popular all over Mississippi man. And he left and came north in the 30's. The next thing I heard he had a record out and on the market, you know."

In St. Louis he fell in with Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams who he played with on his first recordings for Bluebird in 1937. St. Louis pianist Walter Davis was responsible for getting Nighthawk signed to the Bluebird label. For the next few years, he and other St. Louis musicians traveled to Chicago to record. Nighthawk recorded 21 sides for Bluebird and 4 sides for Decca under his own name between 1937-1940 and many sides as a session musician backing up Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and others playing both harmonica and guitar. He recorded variously as Robert Lee McCoy, Rambling Bob and later for Decca as Peetie's Boy a reference to Peetie Wheatstraw who he recorded with and played with around St. Louis.

St. Louis Was A Hot Town For Blues

St. Louis was teeming with blues talent as Big Joe Williams observed: "Yeah, all of 'em piled right into Chicago. But along in them days there wasn't no blues singers in Chicago. ...All the blues singers were around St. Louis and Memphis." Nighthawk stayed mainly in St. Louis between 1936-1939. St. Louis was a vibrant blues town during this period as Henry Townsend recalls: "It was a whole lotta fun. You didn't find a dead place in town. Sometimes we'd just get together as a group and just do jamming, you know. Sometimes the jam sessions would last four or five hours. Henry Brown would show up, Peetie Wheatstraw, Robert Johnson was there for a while, and of course Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams, and my main man, Sonny Boy. St. Louis was a hot town for blues in those days, just like Chicago."

Honeyboy Edwards recalls that during this period Nighthawk "had been playing and living out on John McKey's Plantation in Friars' Point [Mississippi] since before 37'. Him and his brother used to drive around in A-model Ford, playing different places. His name was Robert McCoy then. Robert was a plantation boy." In 1940 Nighthawk cut "Friars Point Blues" for the Decca label. Drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith worked on the Wooton Epps Plantation outside of Helena circa late 30's and 40's and recalls that Nighthawk was farming next to him for several years. This may be the same plantation that Edwards refers to.

He'd Go Back To Big Foot Country

Robert Nighthawk, Circa mid-40's?

Nighthawk moved to Chicago in 1940. He spent some time in Chicago in the early 40's, doing session work and playing around town with musicians like Curtis Jones and Leroy Jackson playing on the Westside and on State Street. Nighthawk employed a band from the beginning and his early band consisted of John Henry Barbee on guitar and an accordion player. At this time he was playing mostly swing numbers. Guitarist Moody Jones remembers working a gig with Nighthawk- who was playing guitar, harp and tenor banjo at Grand & Harlem. Nighthawk was likely playing with Ann Sortier at the time who appears on two of his Decca records. Big Joe says, "He didn't stay in no one place too long. He'd come here and leave- he played lots of clubs in Chicago, though, with Sonny Boy and different ones, but he'd be havin' a record shop or some kind of business, and the next thing, he done put up and gone...he'd go back to Big Foot Country, all in the Delta country. He was makin' lots of money. Played the roadhouses and things like that, all down in Blytheville, Steele, MO., and on to West Memphis and on down to Friars Point, Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Louisiana ..." Big Joe's reference to Nighthawk owning a record store is accurate. He sold new and used records from his brother's basement which was on 3410 South Wabash Street. This was also where Nighthawk stayed when he was in Chicago.

In Arkansas he found he was forgotten as a musician but that his 1937 song "Prowling Night Hawk" was remembered. Because of this he changed his name to Robert Nighthawk and amplifying his guitar he began to gain wider recognition. He continued to travel extensively across the Arkansas line playing regularly in Mississippi towns like Marks, Lambert, Vance, Ruleville, Parchman, Lula, Leland, Greenville and Greenwood.

Contrary to popular belief, Tampa Red did not actually teach Nighthawk how to use the slide. Nighthawk did apparently stay or rehearse at Tampa's Chicago home which was a mecca for just about every bluesman who passed through city. However In a 1964 interview with Mike Bloomfield Nighthawk says: "Well, I kind of started it then. Little bit, late hours of the night...I'd...one of them mean blues I'd play with the slide. ...I didn't exactly learn it from Tampa Red. Well, I used to like his playing with that slide, so I just got an idea that I wanted to play with it. …I always wanted to play like Tampa Red. I imagine I come up with somethin' a little different." Houston Stackhouse more or less confirms this story: "He said he knowed him (Tampa Red) but didn't say he hung around him much. He'd say "Well Stack, I'm gonna show you this old Tampa stuff, now," and he'd run it around. He'd be soundin' just like Tampa Red, too. And then he'd get back to his own style: "Well, I'm gon' get back in my own style now. I'm just showin' you I can do it." Blues researcher Stephen C. LaVere suggests that Eugene Powell (Sonny Boy Nelson) may have been the one to introduce Nighthawk to slide playing. Houston Stackhouse gives some evidence towards this claim: "Eugene Powell at Greenville, he played a whole lot with a knife. He and Robert and I used to play together around Mississippi, way back there, in the early 30's."

King Biscuit Time

King Biscuit Time: Houston Stackhouse, Sonny Boy Williamson, Peck Curtis

Honeyboy Edwards came to Helena in 1940 and recalls seeing Nighthawk and later got to know him. "In the forties, Robert started a little thing and called himself Nighthawk and that's when he would broadcast on the radio in Helena...Them country people would break down the house to get to the radio to hear Nighthawk broadcasting with his band." Robert Nighthawk gonna play, they was going to be there", said Sam Carr.

Around 1942 Carr moved in with his father and provides an eyewitness account of his father's activities during this period. "...I moved in with my daddy, Robert. We lived in a black Neighborhood in Helena at 308 Franklin Street, in the rear. ...Wherever Robert played, I used to work the door for him. Entry was usually a dollar. ...By then, he was playing jukes all around Drew, Moon Lake, Marks. He was still playing clubs in Helena. ...He played mostly with a slide on his finger, a brass pipe he cut and filed down to fit his finger. We played down here on Moon Lake, country jukes, fairs. Robert had a good reputation in Mississippi. For his guitar playing, he was the greatest. Everywhere he had 200, 300 people listening. Robert played "Sweet Black Angel", "Anna Lee", "Honey Hush", "Bricks In My Pillow." The people danced to the music. ...I started playing upright bass in my daddy's band in 1944. ...Robert let me put on a show for five minutes, then he'd start back playing. ... Me and Robert would come down to Drew and get Kansas City Red. Robert brought him back and learned him how to play drums. Robert knew how to play drums. I wanted to learn, but Robert kept me on the door."

I Didn't Run Up On Robert- Robert Run Up On Me!

In 1942, after playing in St. Louis and Chicago he got himself a spot on KFFA radio in his hometown of Helena advertising for Bright Star Flour backed sometimes by guitarist Joe Willie Wilkins or Pinetop Perkins on piano, in competition with Sonny Boy's show for King Biscuit Flour. Pinetop began playing with Nighthawk sometime in the early 40's. Pinetop recalls their first encounter: "Robert Nighthawk was the first big band I played with. I didn't run up on Robert. Robert run up on me! ...He said , "looky here. Why don't ya'll get with me. Get out here and let's try to make us some money....We had two guitars and drums....Robert nighthawk went all over the South. I stayed with him quite a while but I was gettin' tired of so much road travel....Robert and I were on the Bright Star Flour Hour program in Helena, Arkansas. We wasn't gettin' paid for playin' on the air, just did it for advertising where the band going to be and stuff. Well at least the man wasn't payin' me. He mighta been payin' Robert." Honeyboy Edwards remembers hearing Nighthawk advertising on the radio: "Then the musicians where they was going to play on Friday night and people would get spruced up and go on over there." Pinetop left Nighthawk to play with Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit program taking the place of sick pianist Robert "Dudlow" Taylor. "Gave Robert two weeks notice, said, "I gotta go where there's money, boy!" Pinetop would play again with Nighthawk in the late 40's and Nighthawk took him to Chicago in 1950 to to play on some of his Chess recordings. In 1946 Nighthawk's old partner Houston Stackhouse came to Helena to play on KFFA as he relates: "I was down at Wiggins [Mississippi] then. He sent for me." He left Nighthawk in '47 due to a common complaint: "Robert, he'd get a little tricky sometime. He'd shortchange. He had a slick kinda deal he was doin'!"

I Had To Run Him Out Through The Corn Fields

Also during this period Earl Hooker played regularly in Nighthawk's band as well as a young Ike Turner who played piano when he was still in his early teens. Turner learned piano from Pinetop: "I taught Ike Turner how to play piano when he was goin' to school, Clarksdale, Mississippi...Ike caught on..." The band roamed all over the Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana. One of their favorite stops was Tutwiler, Mississippi sixteen miles from Clarksdale. In Tutwiler they ran into Kansas City Red, whose drumming and vocal abilities got him hired immediatley. "Red'd sing a whole lot of songs. Robert was doin' the playin'', and Red'd do most of the singin'" recalls Houston Stackhouse." Due to Nighthawk's unpredictable nature Earl and Red learned how to work for themselves. Many times they woke up to find Nighthawk had already taken off. Nighthawk was notorious for running off without paying his band members. As Kansas City Red explained: "Nighthawk, he's another guy that pulled that stuff to me. He'd get that money. I had to run him out through the corn fields."

Nighthawk also broadcast from WROX out of Clarksdale and WDIA out of Memphis. He started broadcasting on WROX in 1939. Houston Stackhouse recalls that he and Nighthawk played at a Jackson radio station in the early 30's but doesn't give the call letters. In 1947 Hooker and Red joined Nighthawk on WROX in addition to a young piano player named Ernest Lane. The situation was similar to his stint at KFFA in that they were paid close to nothing but they were given the opportunity to advertise gigs. Nighthawk would take his band out to the country juke joints around Clarksdale. The crowds would be large due to Nighthawk's radio appearances.

In 1947 Nighthawk married Hazel Momon who he met in Clarksdale in 1945 after taking her away from Ike Turner. Around this period Nighthawk resided at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale living with his wife Hazel on one side and keeping his girlfriend Ethel Mae conveniently down the hall. Supposedly Nighthawk's suitcase still remains at the hotel. Before it became a hotel in 1944 the building housed the G.T. Thomas Afro-American hospital, where Bessie Smith was taken after her tragic 1937 auto accident on Highway 61. Nighthawk was apparently married to a woman named Beatrice at the same time who he married the year before. Beatrice may be the woman Sam Carr recalls as Early Bea when he lived in St. Louis from 1946-60.. "...Robert Nighthawk's wife, Early Bea, started playing drums with us . She was a better drummer than me because she had been playing a few years. Sometimes Early Bea sang. ...On occasion, he's [Nighthawk] play with us. But Robert wasn't reliable. He was so good he's go wherever the job was, the most money. He went around some of the big clubs in St. Louis where the big bands was and he's run the drummers off. When Robert walked in, that was it. I never saw anybody do that but him." Trying to untangle Nighthawk's relationships is confusing since he was married many times, sometimes at the same time, and had several children.

Hazel and Nighthawk stayed together until 1953 and the marriage resulted in three children: Geni, Robert and Marianne. Hazel played drums and sang in Nighthawk's band. She is currently living in Chicago as is her daughter, Geni. Nighthawk was apparently playing with Dr. Ross around this time as Mike Rowe states after interviewing Ross in the 60's: "In 1947 Ross was playing with Robert Nighthawk in a group that included Ernest Lane, Houston Stackhouse and a singer called Ethel Mae." Ethel Mae sang on four of Nighthak's Aristocrat sides.

It wasn't until 1948, with the help of Muddy Waters, that he began recording for Aristocrat later to become Chess records. Nighthawk stayed until 1950 but only achieved success with the magnificent double sided hit "Sweet Black Angel/ Annie Lee" produced by first time producer Willie Dixon. Nighthawk's initial success didn't last long and he moved to the small Chicago based label United. He stayed there until 1952 producing a body of work that rivaled his Chess sides. Nighthawk showed his diversity producing some jumping boogie numbers as well his more typical slower material. Nighthawk didn't stay in Chicago long and soon returned to the south and did not record again until 1964 when he briefly returned to Chicago.

He Loved Helena And His Guitar

Sam Carr

Sam Carr, Nighthawk's son, holds his father's guitar
(Jeffries Plantation, Mississippi, 1989)

Nighthawk never stayed away from Helena too long and remained very popular in the area. His son Sam Carr says "He loved Helena and his guitar." During the 50's and 60's he was based in the Helena and in the Mississippi towns of Friar's Point and Dundee. He occasionally would go north to St. Louis and Chicago or work his way down to Florida for the fruit-picking season. Sam Carr states that he was able to earn a living as a musician during this time so he was obviously still popular. He usually worked with Sam Carr and harmonica player Frank Frost. From 1962 onward they added Jack Johnson on guitar and performed as The Nighthawks, backing not only Nighthawk but other blues notables as well. During this period Nighthawk also worked steadily with guitarist CeDell Davis who he met in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. They worked together for ten years straight, roughly 1953-'63, trading off "bassing" and lead duties song by song. In fact it seems that nearly every bluesman to come out of the Delta from the 30's up through the 60's could recall seeing Nighthawk in some small town juke joint or hearing him on the radio.

You'd Better Be Careful Stack; The Hawk's Inside

One of the more interesting eyewitness accounts during this period comes from harmonica player Nat Armstrong who related a "blues battle" that happened in Hughes, Arkansas in the early 60's. The stage was set when Joe Willie Wilkins, Robert Nighthawk and Nat Armstrong were residing in town when musicians Houston Stackhouse, James Peck Curtis and James Starkey rolled into town looking for a gig. Nat Armstrong was the first to spot the newly arrived musicians as they approached the front stoop of the cafe where the others had been performing. Armstrong warned Stackhouse: "You'd better be careful Stack; the Hawk's inside." Stackhouse replied "Tell Hawk to move out of the way; the Buzzard has arrived."

Word spread quickly through the small Delta town and by nightfall the little cafe was packed. Accompanied by James Starkey's piano, Nighthawk and Stackhouse battled throughout the night neither leaving the stage for a minute. After hours of playing, they became too tired to stand, and sat on the floor. By dawn, both musicians, unwilling to let up, were sitting in pools of their own urine, still battling it out.

Nighthawk returned to Chicago in 1964 and quickly made up for lost time recording for Chess, Decca, Testament as well as making recordings for a documentary that aired on Swedish radio.. Nighthawk resumed his playing around Chicago and was even recorded live on Maxwell Street. Filmmaker Mike Shea taped some of the action for his documentary "And This Is Free" and caught Nighthawk in tremendous form blasting the blues to an appreciative Chicago crowd. Nighthawk played at the Maxwell Street open air market on Sunday mornings often backed by Johnny Young and John Wrencher. In addition he played at various clubs and taverns around town including Pepper's, AT & T Lounge, Diz's Club, 708 Club, Turner's Place and The Hole. Henry Townsend recalls catching Nighthawk at a club on Forty-seventh street: "...He was breakin' 'em down. ...He kept that house packed." Frank Scott recalls catching Nighthawk at Diz's Club on August, 3 1964: "...I felt closer to the blues than I've ever been. Robert's voice is very exciting and his "bottleneck" guitar playing was stunning. He did several numbers including his hit "The Moon Is Rising" and several Elmore James numbers such as "Anna Lee" and "I Held My Baby Last Night." What a fabulous evening- I had to be dragged out of the place!" Nighthawk even made an appearance at the First Floor Club in Toronto.

If He'd A Been A Christian She Coulda Probably Done Better With Him


Nighthawk's Headstone
(Photo by Don Buroker)

Nighthawk cut his stay short and was soon back in Helena with his health now failing. Kansas City Red said "...He coulda stayed up here in Chicago and played around as long as he wanted. But I reckon he just couldn't get his mind off of Helena, Arkansas." He was living in Helena but spending a lot of time with Sam Carr in nearby Dundee. He still managed to play in the local juke joints and even took over the King Biscuit show after Sonny Boy Williamson died in 1965 although this didn't last long. In 1967 he recorded his last sides playing in Houston Stackhouse's combo but was mostly played bass due to declining health. Nighthawk thought he had been given poison whiskey but Stackhouse took him to a faith healer. She said that Robert had "that old time dropsy." Stackhouse said: "She said she coulda cured him but it done run too long then...than she say he was a sinner, too. She say if he he'd a been a Christian, she coulda probably done better with him." On Nov. 5 1967 Robert McCollum died of congestive heart failure at the Helena hospital. "He loved Helena" said Sam Carr, "that's the reason I buried him there." Nighthawk lies in Magnolia Cemetery. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983. On October 6th, 2000 Blues Aid provided a marker for the grave site of Robert Nighthawk with the ceremony taking place at the Magnolia Cemetery. The exact location of Nighthawk's grave remains unknown.

*Pinetop Perkins, Born On The Delta CD

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