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So they get part of the tune. Then they flag it and get frustrated. Damn, be happy! You got part of the tune. That doesn't stop you... it's not being complacent, it's being realistic. You can't just go through every CD you have and every tune that you like say 'Why can't I play that?' Or 'Why can't I play it as well as that?' - Jerry Ricks, Port Townsend 97

Author Topic: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk  (Read 8783 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« on: January 14, 2006, 12:51:44 AM »
John M's Sleepy John transcriptions, where appropriate, have commented upon the guitar style/playing of Decca accompanist, Robert Lee McCoy. Whilst searching for something in Blues Unlimited I came across the following (issue 42, Mar-Apr 1967, p8-9) which gives an interesting insight into the personality:

A Note On Robert Nighthawk
Don Kent

While listening to some tapes, Pete Welding made of Robert Nighthawk I resuscitated some notes, literally yellow now, in preparation for the liners. Reading them, I was struck with a curious nostalgia; Nighthawk, more than some, still retained a large amount of the romantic glamour that attaches itself to names that come alive off old record labels. At least, for me.

The nickname "Nighthawk", of course, came from one of his Bluebird "hits", back in the 'thirties, though he didn't use it until many years afterwards. People, he said, remembered the song, not him. Born in Helena Arkansas on November 30th, 1909, Nighthawk was taught guitar by a neighbour, Houston Stackhouse. He travelled extensively in the late 'twenties. meeting most of the blues singers of the Memphis-Mississippi area such as Sleepy John Estes, Will Shade, even Charlie Patton "and his knife". Johnny Young still remembers seeing Nighthawk in Vicksburg in the early 'thirties, playing guitar and harmonica. His real name is not McCoy, the one he recorded under for Bluebird and Decca, but McCullum; as used on the Aristocrat sessions. (McCoy is his mother's maiden name). When asked why he changed his name, he said he had to when he left the South as he was in deep trouble.

His sessions produced no masterpieces, perhaps excepting the exceedingly fine "Friars Point", but they were usually good and sold fairly well. He was used extensively as a sideman for Decca and Bluebird artists, playing guitar or harmonica. I've heard it said that Nighthawk was one of the first to switch to electric guitar in the early 'forties, and adopted it to a bottleneck technique that is reputed to be one of the most influential, and very likely one of the smoothest. He taught Earl Hooker to play, supposedly taught a lot to Elmore James and imparted somewhat to Muddy Waters, who, in return for the favour, got Nighthawk his Aristocrat sessions. In the next few years he also recorded for Chess, States and United and can be credited with at least two post-war classics: "The Moon Is Rising", may be the best single side in the States catalogue, and the sombre "Black Angel" recorded for Aristocrat. Others such as "Crying Won't Help You", "Jackson Town Girl" and "Return Man Blues" are worthy of mention.

Pete Welding informed me, in May 1964, that Nighthawk had been discovered and would play at the University of Chicago Folk Festival. Before the performance I was introduced to a melancholy man of medium height in a dark suit. Nighthawk looked rough, as if he had attended the same schools as Big Joe Williams; but whereas Joe is normally very out-going, jovial and garrulous, Nighthawk was polite but taciturn, pensive with the air that the world had been a hard place to live in and always would be. He didn't crack a smile that night, as I recall. Indeed, although he would grin, and occasionally "grandstand" on Maxwell Street or in a Club, he was usually serious; sometimes almost bitter.

Of course, I had heard 'bottleneck" guitar before. Muddy often, Big Joe (alas, not so often), Jimmy Brewer, Arvella Gray; many of the singers working in Chicago. But not often have I felt an effect so intensely as when the first pulsating notes, ripped from the guitar by the slide, charged the Hall, sobbing behind the gloomy voice that was as heavy as a dead hand. It appeared as if Nighthawk had cowed the musicians working with him, as well as the audience; lonely, brooding figure, not quite at ease on the stage, pulling together moments of private sadness and hidden violence.

That summer, Nighthawk worked at "Dizzy's Place", a tavern on 47th and Wentworth, with John Lee Granderson on bass (later replaced by Johnny Young), a mediocre drummer called Jimmy Smith, and occasionally Big Walter or John Wrencher on harmonica. I hardly missed an evening he was working. Despite the obvious limitations of his flat, droning voice and an unfortunate predilection for imitating Cecil Gant, Nighthawk rarely was tedious; he was excellent for creating a mood of introspection. It's no idle boast that I spent one of the happiest nights there that I have ever had in a blues joint.

Later on that year, I was helpful in sending Nighthawk, Johnny Young and his drummer to Canada for a gig, not without many hand-ups. A few days before they left Nighthawk and I sat in Koester's basement at the Jazz Record Mart, drinking and talking over the trip to come. Perhaps we were high, but there was an unusual rapport between us as we swapped jokes and he told me many anecdotes and stories about his career. As he parted, he said in a wry voice, "yeah, we'll both become millionaires", and laughed? the only time I recall this strange, serious man doing so?with much feeling, as if he had made a happy discovery.

I don't think Nighthawk was ever happy in the City. There was, and still is, a terrible amount of scuffling for a bluesman who isn't represented on a major label. The only work he could get was one-nighters in small bars, hustling on Maxwell Street and a job as a sideman on one Chess session. He told me he frankly preferred the South. It was cheaper, apt to be less violent than the City, and he was better known. He left Chicago after making some sides for Pete Welding. Jimmy Smith, the drummer, went with him but returned soon. They were working outside of Jackson, he said, and Mississippi State Troopers, noticing the Illinois licence plates on Smith's car, ran them out of town because they suspected Nighthawk of being a civil rights worker! Smith returned to his job as a house painter, leaving Nighthawk headed for Florida and unfortunate oblivion.

Offline dj

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #1 on: January 14, 2006, 07:04:19 AM »
Thanks for the post, Bunker Hill.  Robert Nighthawk has always been one of my favorite "minor league" blues singers.  I love the description of Nighthawk's voice as "heavy as a dead hand".  While that's apt, he managed to get a lot of feeling into his singing.  Of his post-war work, I think "Annie Lee Blues" is particularly worthy of mention.  His solo on that is a classic of conciseness (and microtonality  :D).

Say, do you have every blues book and magazine ever published in Great Britain, or does it only seem that way?  If you do, you might want to consider relocating to the US, say to somewhere in the Hudson River Valley, about 100 miles north of New York City.  There's lots of good culture, lots of good food, and I could borrow from your extensive library and never give things back.   >:D

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #2 on: January 14, 2006, 07:33:42 AM »
I think "Annie Lee Blues" is particularly worthy of mention.  His solo on that is a classic of conciseness (and microtonality  :D).
I too think that song is in a class of its own. He took Tampa Red's 1940 original (Anna Lou) and transformed it into something magical.
Quote
Say, do you have every blues book and magazine ever published in Great Britain, or does it only seem that way? 
Probably just seems that way. When I got the 'blues bug' as a teenager in 1962 I had to read everything I could about it and the culture which spawned same, which lasted until the mid-1990s. Over the past decade that has changed both from the point of view of literature and music purchase.  :)

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #3 on: January 14, 2006, 10:29:08 AM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
I would like to add my thanks to those of dj for posting the piece on Robert Nighthawk.  It was great to find out more about a musician of whom I was almost completely ignorant.  It really is amazing the variety of concert reviews, articles and other pieces on the blues from the last forty years you are able to lay your hands on--you must have a lot of space to house such an extensive collection of material.  Is it catalogued or indexed, or do you just find the pieces you are looking for by memory?  Whatever the case, it is remarkable, and adds a lot to the discussions here.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Slack

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #4 on: January 14, 2006, 10:34:53 AM »
I'll chime in a "me too" Bunker - the articles are great and add a very nice dimension!

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #5 on: January 14, 2006, 10:57:15 AM »
After reading this article I went back and listened again to some Robert Nighthawk tracks. I think he got a tine and a sustain with the slide that easily rivalled Tampa Red. He was no mean singer, too - with some great songs. It made me wonder: what exactly does define for us the 'great' blues players and people like Robert Nighthawk whom many rate as of 'secondary importance'. On listening to him again I've certainly revised my opinion and will be listening a lot more closely.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #6 on: January 14, 2006, 12:24:14 PM »
Is it catalogued or indexed, or do you just find the pieces you are looking for by memory?  Whatever the case, it is remarkable, and adds a lot to the discussions here.
It used to be catalogued in what I termed "my mind's eye" (i.e. visualising pages in books, magazine, or  back sleeve of LPs) but since the publication in 1999 of Robert Ford's blues bibliography it's now just a matter of page-turning, followed by finding and scanning. ;D The Nighthawk piece by Don Kent just jumped out at me because of your SJE posts...otherwise I would have by-passed it as something I was please to recall. If you know what I mean? (familiarity breeds contempt some might say)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #7 on: January 14, 2006, 12:45:34 PM »
After reading this article I went back and listened again to some Robert Nighthawk tracks.
For me that's what it's always been about, a piece of writing igniting something within. It started for me with Paul Oliver's notes to the LP Blues Fell This Morning, followed by purchasing the book itself. My introduction to Nighthawk plowed a similar furrow - a few post war tracks on a 1965 Testament compilation, then a couple of prewar items on a 1969 Down With The Game LP and I was hooked, just had to hear everything the man recorded.

Offline Lwoodblues

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #8 on: January 15, 2006, 09:05:55 PM »
I saw and met Robert Nighthawk about 5 weeks ago. According to him, he learned to play, at least start to play, from Robert Johnson whom he claimed to be "staying for a while" with his mother when he was 11 years old. I asked his bass player about any experience doing workshops, and was told he did them at festivals, aka 1 time shots.
Robert didn't seem to interested in doing a week.
 He seemed to be a very nice person, very polite and a little dimutive, a little hard of hearing, but, if I ever get to be 91 or 92 years old, I hope that I can function as good.
  Lwoodblues

Offline Chezztone

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #9 on: January 15, 2006, 10:59:39 PM »
Say what? Robert Nighthawk is dead and buried in Helena, Ark. If this is a joke, I don't get it. Thanks, Chezz

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #10 on: January 16, 2006, 06:10:12 AM »
LWood might have meant Robert Jr Lockwood. Robert Nighthawk is indeed dead as you say (as far as I know!).

(Which reminds me for some reason of one of the participants' concerts at PT. The MC was listing the upcoming acts. Someone had billed themselves rather daringly as 'Son House'. I was standing at the back of the hall next to Phil Wiggins, who said, "If Son House shows up, I'm leavin'.")
« Last Edit: January 16, 2006, 06:37:51 AM by uncle bud »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #11 on: January 16, 2006, 11:31:44 AM »
About 35 years ago Mike Leadbitter wrote a lengthy Nighthawk feature for Blues Unlimited. This pulled together all the known research/interviews conducted by folk like Don Kent, James La Rocca, Steve LaVere, John Broven, George Mitchell, Pete Welding etc. One of the illustrations was a tattered 1961 Arkansas Driver's License which was in the name of Robert McCollum. As I recall Leadbitter's caption commented that the reverse - where violations, convictions were to be listed - was clean. Amazing what trivia sticks in the mind - can't recall a thing about the feature though!

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #12 on: January 19, 2006, 05:15:07 PM »
Hi all,
In trying to remember where I had heard Robert Nighthawk mentioned in recent years, apart from the tracks where he accompanied Sleepy John Estes, it finally came to me.  The first year I taught at the EBA Bluesweek, Louisiana Red was on staff, and as has been mentioned before, Red is a demon for giving credit where credit is due.  I can't tell you how many times Red would play a lick and say, "That's how Robert Nighthawk played it."  I know Red values Robert Nighthawk's musicianship very highly and considers him on a par with Muddy Waters and the other great players of that generation.  Re Prof. Scratchy's query, "What is it that places an accomplished musician in the second echelon of players in people's minds?", boy, I don't know.  I am listening to the recent Document release of Robert Nighthawk right now, and he sounds sensational.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #13 on: February 05, 2006, 12:32:10 AM »
Thought I'd reactivate this to bring to attention the following which is included in a Roots & Rhythm 'odds and sods' email. It's was one of the wonderful set of 1997 releases instigated by Mary Katherine Aldin the sound quality of which is superb. A bit pricey but the entire artefact is a gem :

ROBERT LEE MCCOY   The Bluebird Recordings, 1937-38   RCA 67416   $15.00
21 tracks, 63 min., highly recommended. Out of print. Better known as postwar artist Robert Nighthawk, these early sides represent his 1st recordings.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #14 on: February 25, 2006, 06:01:06 AM »
Spotted an interview conducted with Little Laura Dukes in Memphis, August 30th 1976 by Robert Springer and published in Blues Unlimited July/August 1977 which might be of interest to followers of this thread:

RS: So, how did you get your first guitar?
LD: Well, the fellow that was teaching me how to play music, he had a guitar.
RS: Who was that fellow?
LD: Robert McCollum.
RS: Was he a well-known musician?
LD: Yeah! He was real good.
RS: Did he play with a band?
LD: No, he didn't play with no band, see, after Robert McCollum and I got together, then he started teachin' me and then that's when I bought me a four-string instrument, but I didn't buy it until I went to . . . first started off, I start playing a ten-string tipple. And then when I got to East St. Louis, Illinois, then that's when I bought a banjo-ukelele. I always did like a small instrument, you know, with four strings.
RS: What took you to East St. Louis?
LD: See, Robert and I, we started out travelling. We would hitch-hike along the roads and stop in stores. Every store we'd stop in to get a lunch or something, they'd want us to play 'em a piece.
RS: How old were you when you went to East St. Louis?
LD: Oh well, I was up in my twenties.
RS: And when did you get your first guitar lesson with Robert McCollum?
LD: In 1933.
RS: Did you write any songs by yourself or did you play other people's songs?
LD: Well, I did write a good many songs 'cause we would, of days, we'd sit down, you know, and study up songs. He showed me about every- thing.
RS: What exactly did he teach you?
LD: Mostly we played blues and other songs. We played other songs that came out, like 'The Old Spinnin' Wheel' and like that.
RS: What's 'The Old Spinning Wheel'?
LD: That's a song that come out way back yonder in the '30s and so I leaned it and we used to go 'round and play that. We got a job in East St. Louis playint every night at a man's place and he had a pool-room in the back and he had us to be in the front playin'. He had a Seeburg [jukebox] in there but he wanted us. And it was but just the two of us. Robert would play guitar and I would play the banjo-ukelele. He would sing some songs and I would sing mine.
RS: How long did you stay in East St. Louis?
LD: We stayed there bout three months, then we started back towards Memphis.
RS: But how long did all that travelling take on the way up and when you stopped at different places and all? Months? A year?
LD: No, no, unh-unh. We hitch-hiked but we never would try to catch rides. We could ride the bus, like that, but we was just travellin' the highway, just makin' extra money
RS: What about freight-trains?
LD: I rode a freight-train once, by myself. Long time ago. See, I used to travel with shows, carnivals. I rode a freight-train from Texas to Memphis. I was really young then. That was before I met Robert McCollum.