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Play it while I think it over... - Bukka White, spoken over instrument break, Baby Please Don't Go, Sonet

Author Topic: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk  (Read 8785 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.

Offline jharris

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #15 on: December 09, 2007, 11:25:34 AM »
It was suggested I post this here to keep the McCoy/Nighthawk stuff in one place.

I recently received an email from someone involved with the Mississippi Blues Commission. The commission are the folks behind the Mississippi Blues Trail which when completed will be composed of more than 100 historical markers and interpretive sites located throughout the state. From the press release: "On Thursday, December 13, 2007 at 2:00 PM, MDA Tourism Heritage Trails Program, the Mississippi Blues Commission and the Clarksdale/Coahoma Tourism Commission will honor blues legend, Robert Lee "Nighthawk" McCollum. The ceremony will take place at the Hirsberg Drug Store located at 649 2nd Street in Friars Point, MS."

Friars Point is fitting as it was obviously a place close to Nighthawk's heart. He lived and married in Friars Point as well as cutting the magnificent "Friars Point Blues" for Decca in 1940. Of course he was also quite fond of Helena which is right across the river. As his son Sam Carr said, "he loved Helena that's the reason I buried him there."


Jeff H.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #16 on: July 04, 2008, 08:07:41 AM »
Hi all,
In the course of driving from Greater Yellowstone Music Camp in Wyoming back to Seattle last week, Orville Johnson played for me a Rounder CD release from the early '90s, "Robert Nighthawk on Maxwell Street", and it was a real ear-opener.  On most of the CD, Robert is working a very small combo, with Johnny Young playing rhythm guitar and a drummer I can't recall.  In this setting, Robert Nighthawk completely monopolizes the solo space, and I don't know if I can recall hearing that set-up work as well elsewhere as it does here, for he is sensational--so sensational, in fact, that I can't even imagine how his playing could be improved upon in any way.  His electric slide playing is my favorite I've ever heard, with incredible searing tone, perfect time, phrasing and intonation.  His rhythm playing behind his own soloing is terrific, hitting little chordal shots with perfect placement, like a great piano player.  His single-string, conventionally fretted lead playing is also superlative.  I really think he makes most of the Chicago blues players working in that period sound like kids in comparison.  On one tune ("Nighthawk's Boogie"?), he plays a very boppish, sophisticated line and quotes Charlie Parker's "Ornithology".  He also does a wonderful version of the song "Annie Lee" that dj and Bunker Hill reference earlier in this thread, that is very "country", with long and short phrasing, hearkening back to his Mississippi roots.  The CD also includes a brief interview with Robert Nighthawk conducted by Michael Bloomfield.
It's eerie to hear someone play so well who received, relatively, so little recognition.  He really was one of the very best players in that style I've ever heard.  If you enjoy strong, well-grounded electric blues by first-generation practitioners, you should seek this CD out.
All best,
Johnm 
« Last Edit: July 04, 2008, 08:43:24 AM by Johnm »

Offline Slack

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #17 on: July 04, 2008, 10:10:12 PM »
There is a great youtube video clip of Nighthawk playing with, most likely, the same trio on Maxwell street. Great street scenes.  here is the description and clip:

Maxwell st. circa 1964 from 'And This is Free' film. Robert sings his song Eli's Place

http://youtube.com/watch?v=oypAbJj-fEs

Anyone seen the film "And This is Free"?

http://www.amazon.com/This-Free-Various-Artists/dp/B000000DQO

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #18 on: July 05, 2008, 12:17:09 AM »
Robert sings his song Eli's Place
FWIW he's singing Dr Clayton's Cheating & Lying Blues. The good doctor recorded quite a few numbers that were picked up in postwar years, mainly by B.B. King. At at the bottom of Stefan's Dr Clayton page http://www.wirz.de/music/claydfrm.htm he's kindly supplied the, albeit rather ancient, Talking Blues magazine Clayton appreciation. Just click on each page to read.

Offline dj

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #19 on: July 05, 2008, 05:05:02 PM »
Thanks for pointing out the Doctor Clayton article, Bunker Hill.  I recommend the article, even though I disagree with Chris Smith on a few points.  (I think the lyrics to "Pearl Harbor Blues" are excellent - the line about how "we even sold the Japanese brass and iron scrap" shows an awareness of the details of international events that I think is rare indeed in blues from the early 40s.)

It's sobering to note how hard it was back in 1977 for someone like Chris Smith to hear all of Dr. Clayton's recorded works.  Or maybe not - are his 1946 sides currently available anywhere?
« Last Edit: September 17, 2010, 10:34:19 AM by dj »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #20 on: July 05, 2008, 11:39:25 PM »
It's sobering to note how hard it was back in 1977 for someone like Chris Smith to hear all of Dr. Clayton's recorded works.  Or maybe not - are his 1946 sides currently available anywhere?
They are the last six tracks on that Japanese CD of 2002 shown in Stefan's discography but that won't be easy to find and the Old Tramp must be long gone. I'm surprised that one of those Snapper-type enterprises hasn't compiled a complete Clayton.

It is also interesting to note that in 1986 when Tony Burke wrote his Blues & Rhythm feature (also on Stefan's page) he could only cite as available one track on a 1982 Epic double LP (unusually missed by Stefan). There's also no "source" mention of Talking Blues magazine which leads me to think it had passed him by.

But I seem to be straying far and wide from where this topic began......
« Last Edit: July 06, 2008, 12:03:49 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline dj

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #21 on: July 06, 2008, 06:04:05 AM »
The 1993 Document CD that issues all of Clayton's pre-war recordings bears a note which says that his 6 1946 recordings will be issued on CD "at a later date", along with Sunnyland Slim's recordings as "Doctor Clayton's Buddy".  The date is now quite a bit later, and we're still waiting...

Offline blueshome

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #22 on: September 17, 2010, 09:56:12 AM »
Looking around and found this:
www.nighthawk.sundayblues.org
Excellent articles

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #23 on: September 17, 2010, 10:48:26 AM »
Looking around and found this:
www.nighthawk.sundayblues.org
Excellent articles
Oh yes indeed, hours of endless pleasure can be derived from this enterprise.

Offline daveharrisonemanband

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Re: Robert Lee McCoy aka Nighthawk
« Reply #24 on: November 20, 2010, 10:48:44 PM »
Great thread! Thanks Bunker Hill, as always. I'm surprised I didn't find this one before. Haven't been here in awhile.
I must say that referring to Robert Nighthawk as a second echelon or minor artist is not giving him his due, to say the least. I rate him as a first tier blues artist and his influence on Muddy, in particular is very obvious. Born in 1909, he was older than Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and a host of artists that inevitably seem to be mentioned in relation to him. He apparently played Muddy's first wedding and Muddy, when asked who Aristocrat Records should record mentioned Nighthawk. His versions of Annie Lee (often called Anna Lee and also famously recorded by his number one student, Earl Hooker), Sweet Black Angel, Crying Won't Help You, Maggie Campbell and The Moon Is Rising are all sublime and deserving of more listening/acclaim. His '64 Maxwell Street recordings give an indication of his power and versatility. It should be mentioned that Nighthawk Boogie (named after the fact) is almost certainly not Nighthawk, sorry the artist's name escapes me now. Check the CD box Maxwell St Blues, which collects the recordings of all of the artists involved in the And This Is Free film documentary (where the Nighthawk video comes from). By the way, it is also likely that Mike Bloomfield plays guitar on some of the session (he was close friends with Norman Dayron, who was the cameraman), notably the solo on Honey Hush, sounds just like Bloomfield.             
Another example of Nighthawk's lack of credit occurs in Ted Gioa's book Delta Blues, where he gets less than a page...HUH? As an artist who truly moved with the times he should have a much bigger name. He played fabulous harp as Robert Lee McCoy behind Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe and His Rhythm (Joe McCoy, his cousin) and Peetie Wheatstraw to name a few. He played excellent acoustic guitar behind Sonny Boy#1. He was a key transitional figure in the electrifying of the guitar and was highly regarded by both Muddy and BB King (who borrowed Crying Won't Help You). His singing was mournful yet tuneful (what's wrong with Cecil Gant? I think he's great too!). He looked forward, not back, recording Joe Turner, Jr Parker, BB and other more modern covers. If he had a downfall it might be his lack of original material. I think part of his lack of popularity related to his lack of follow-up on recordings made in the early '50's, returning to the south rather than staying in Chicago.
I think he rates right up there with every artist I've mentioned. Okay, nuff said!