Welcome to the first edition of Windy City Wednesday. This newest offering from American Blues Scene will share classic and sometimes forgotten blues albums from some of the most iconic Chicago blues men and women ever to grace wax. Our inaugural edition focuses on the compilation album Bricks In My Pillow by the late, great Robert Nighthawk available on CD via Delmark Records.
*Notes by Blues Hall of Fame inducted producer, writer, and record label executive, Jim O’Neal
United Records, was the first successful black-owned record company. Operated by Leonard Allen, tailor, retired policeman and obviously one of exceptionally wide taste in music, established itself primarily through its catalogue of smooth city blues, small combo jazz, and R&B vocal groups. The company made few attempts to challenge to dominance of its South Side neighbor, Chess Records, in the hardcore blues field.
The only true Delta blues stylists recorded by United were Robert Nighthawk and the obscure James Banister-Alfred Harris band. At the beginning, there must have been high hopes for Nighthawk, for the company recorded him (along with Roosevelt Sykes and J.T. Brown) on its first day of sessions, July 12, 1951, and two of United’s first five releases were by, “Robert Nighthawk and his Nighthawks Band.” Nighthawk had a national hit in late 1949 on Aristocrat with “Black Angel Blues”/Annie Lee Blues,” and perhaps United now envisioned him as its blues-singing slide guitar rival to Chess’ Muddy Waters. But sales didn’t pan out. United recorded Nighthawk only once more, and he drifted south to East St. Louis and his native Helena, Ark., area, not to record again until 1964.
United’s Allen would later scoff: “Robert Nighthawk? I didn’t think nothin’ of him. I didn’t go into those joints where they were playing. Lew Simpkins [United’s A&R man] knew him–he had Robert Nighthawk in mind for the first session. So after he cut the session, it did nothin’. I don’t think we recorded Nighthawk any more but maybe once or twice, just because we had the man under contract. You see, then, blues would sell to a certain clientele. But they ain’t gon’ sell over 50,000 records for me. They were just somethin’ to add on to sell some records to a certain class of people.”
Musicians, Delta blues audiences, and latter-day blues enthusiasts have never shared Allen’s disdain for Robert Nighthawk’s music. Today, Nighthawk is ranked among the greats of blues history. To many, he was the ultimate slide guitarist of the amplified blues era, one who influenced the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Earl Hooker. B.B. King cited Nighthawk as one of his “10 Favorite Guitarists” in Guitar Player magazine. Nighthawk’s doom-laden, brooding blues merged the slide, which seemed to make his guitar literally weep, with deep, solemn vocals. His artistry extended beyond slow slide blues, of course, to standard guitar picking, other instruments, and a variety of other blues, boogies and ballads–all tailored to the masterful Nighthawk touch. However, because of his apparent dislike for Chicago and other recording centers, his rambling nature, and the success he had through another medium–live radio broadcasts–he did not record prolifically, and no full LP of Nighthawk’s music has been issued until now.
Nighthawk, whose real name was Robert Lee McCullum (sometimes spelled McCollum), was born Nov. 30, 1909, in Helena, Ark., and played harmonica for several years before he learned guitar from his cousin, Houston Stackhouse, around 1930. The two worked on a farm at Murphy Bayou, Miss., during the day, and at night Stackhouse would show Robert how to play blues numbers such as those of the popular Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson. Stackhouse gave his cousin some pointers on slide technique as well, but Nighthawk’s slide style didn’t mature until some years later.
In the early ’30s, Stackhouse and Nighthawk would team up, sometimes with other bluesmen like Eugene Powell and a harmonica player named Percy who was said to be Nighthawk’s brother, playing for both black and white parties and dances in Mississippi–blues or ballads and pop tunes, depending on the audience. The two played briefly on a Jackson radio program and once accompanied country yodeller Jimmie Rodgers on a show at a Jackson hotel. Nighthawk traveled further north in Mississippi and into Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, meeting some of the better-known blues artists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes and Will Shade, and even performing at Muddy Waters’ first wedding reception. Big Joe Williams, who later helped Nighthawk make his first recordings, would sometimes stay with him in Friars Point, Miss., across the river from Helena.
Williams remembers Nighthawk as Robert Lee McCoy, which was the name Robert had taken upon leaving the South for St. Louis in the mid-’30s when he was reportedly being sought for shooting a man. In St. Louis and East St. Louis, Nighthawk fell in with the local blues circle which included Big Joe, Charley Jordan, Walter Davis, Henry Townsend, Speckled Red, Peetie Wheatstraw, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and others, and in May 1937 made his recording debut for Bluebird in Aurora, Ill., with Sonny Boy and Big Joe. For the next few years, he and other St. Louis artists continued to come to Aurora or Chicago to record. His records were issued first under the name Robert Lee McCoy, then Rambling Bob, and, when he switched to Decca in 1940, Peetie’s Boy. He appeared on numerous sessions as a sideman, playing either harmonica or guitar behind more than a dozen other Bluebird and Decca singers. Although Big Joe remembers Nighthawk as a second guitarist who only played the bass lines in those days, the slide guitar had already appeared on several of Robert’s records. Clearly the main influence was Tamps Red, whose house was a combination hostel and rehearsal hall for artists coming to Chicago for sessions in the ’30s and ’40s. To the delicacy and phrasing of Tampa Red’s bottleneck Nighthawk added the bite and toughness of the Delta.
Nighthawk spent some time in Chicago in the early ’40s, doing session work and playing around the city with Annie (probably Ann Sortier), one of a series of wives or girl friends who sang or danced. But, as was his custom, Nighthawk soon moved on, to other towns and other women. Big Joe said, “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. . . .”
In 1942, back in Helena, Robert was embarking on a new phase of his career, one which finally brought him recognition as a major bluesman. In St. Louis or Chicago, he’d no doubt been active enough, but he seemed to be a secondary figure in cities filled with the biggest names in blues. In “Big Foot Country,” however, he was becoming a Delta blues legend. Taking the sobriquet Robert Nighthawk (from his first record, “Prowling NightHawk”) and amplifying his guitar, he got himself a spot on KFFA, and from there his name continued to grow throughout the area. The radio broadcasts, usually sponsored by the manufacturers of Bright Star or Mother’s Best flour, gave Nighthawk a chance to both solicit and advertise his nightly engagements at cafes, clubs, or dances. He was now a bandleader, too, employing, among others, Stackhouse, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Ernest Lane and Red Stevenson (a drummer whom Nighthawk nicknamed Kansas City Red.) Nighthawk was the chief competitor of Rice Miller, the second “Sonny Boy Williamson,” who was broadcasting on KFFA for King Biscuit Flour.
In the late ’40s Nighthawk based his operations from other towns and other radio stations in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, also heading through Missouri, Kentucky and southern Illinois with various band members–personnel tended to change due to the leader’s rambling ways and his habit of shortchanging and/or stranding his sidemen along the route. His only steady accompanist seemed to be a dancer-turned-drummer from Helena named Edward Lee Irvin, better known as Shorty, sometimes as Little Nighthawk. Robert didn’t record again until Muddy helped set him up with Chess in 1948, but he had been turning down offers while in Helena, according to Kansas City Red. “Robert, he was a stubborn type about recording. He never was too interested till he got up to Chicago and started playing,” says Red.
During the next few years, Robert recorded a number of songs he’d been doing on the radio shows, including his theme instrumental, “Nighthawk Boogie,” several Tampa Red selections, and a lovely blues which Kansas City Red usually sang, “The Moon Is Rising.” He drew on material from other blues singers such as Tommy Johnson, Jim Jackson, Bumble Bee Slim and Willie Love; he wrote new songs, too.
In his Chess/Aristocrat days (1948-50), Nighthawk and his new girl friend, Ethel Mae, worked mainly out of Cairo, Ill., although after the records brought renewed fame up north, he worked regularly at one of Chicago’s leading blues nighteries, the 708 Club, for a while. He first recorded for United exactly two years after the Aristocrat “Black Angel” session, in the company of Chicago session men: on bass was Ransom Knowling, and the drummer was probably Jump Jackson, who played on the Sykes and J.T. Brown sets that day. Sykes, another one-time Helena and St. Louis figure, played piano on at least some cuts and threw in a little shouting on “Nighthawk Boogie.” (Pianist Bob Call may also have been present.)
The first United session seemed to go more smoothly than the second, as the files indicate that the four vocals were all completed on the first take at the ’51 date (July 12, 1951). Four hours and many additional takes were necessary at the ’52 session (October 25, 1952), which featured Call, Knowling and a drummer and second guitarist who have not been identified. “Maggie Campbell” went through 11 takes of varying tempos and piano accompaniments, with the second guitarist coming in at the end of the first take but sitting out the rest. The song was paired with “The Moon Is Rising” for United’s final–and for some reason, much-delayed — Nighthawk release (on the States subsidiary); the disc wasn’t reviewed in Billboard until July 1956. Perhaps the unusual rhythm of “Maggie Campbell” appealed to United’s hopes for a hit in the rock ‘n’ roll era.
Those sessions produced the following 14 tracks (including 3 previously unreleased alternates) which became Bricks In My Pillow:
Crying Won’t Help You 2:43 1007-1
Take It Easy, Baby 2:40 1008-1
Seventy-Four 2:49 1153-7
Maggie Campbell (alternate) 2:53 1151-1
The Moon Is Rising 2:41 1152-3
Nighthawk Boogie 2:33 1008 1/2-6
Kansas City 2:34 1006-1
You Missed A Good Man 2:32 1150-9
Bricks In My Pillow 2:54 1149-1
Seventy-Four (alternate) 2:13 1153-6
U/S Boogie 2:58 1154-1
Feel So Bad 2:44 1005-1
Maggie Campbell 2:45 1151-11
The Moon Is Rising (alternate) 1:58 1152-1
Nighthawk didn’t stay around Chicago long after the 1952 session. In June 1953, he and Shorty were at the Polka Dot Inn in East St. Louis, according to an item in Jazz Report from a young St. Louis jazz and blues enthusiast named Bob Koester. Harmonica player Malcolm “Little Mack” Simmons sat in at the club for a couple of weeks and had the group lined up for an “Authentic Country Blues” concert for the St. Louis Jazz Club. But the concert fell through when Simmons suddenly left town, and Koester never saw Nighthawk perform in St. Louis, only being introduced to him once by Walter Davis. Then, Nighthawk was gone again.
He resumed his rambles through the southern states, but he stayed mainly in the Helena/Friars Point area for most of the ’50s and ’60s, usually working with his son, drummer Sam Carr. He did return to Chicago at least twice, around 1960 when he rejoined Kansas City Red briefly, and in 1964, when blues collectors and writers finally caught up with him. Pete Welding and Norman Dayron recorded some excellent material by him; Don Kent and others wrote about him in Blues Unlimited. Nighthawk played at the University of Chicago, and went to Canada for some personal appearances and recording. Willie Dixon produced two Nighthawk tracks for an English LP and even used him as a sideman on a Koko Taylor session. Koester recalled that Nighthawk fronted Muddy’s band at Pepper’s Lounge when Muddy was prevented from singing there due to a contract with the Regal Theater. But most of Nighthawk’s work was in lesser South and West Side taverns or outdoors on Maxwell Street, and soon he was again headed back to Helena, his health now failing.
He still played the little blues joints in Mississippi and Arkansas; it seems that nearly every bluesman to come out of the Delta, from the ’30s on up through the ’60s, can recall seeing Nighthawk in some small-town juke joint. Nighthawk took over the King Biscuit Show after Sonny Boy died in 1965, but that didn’t last long. George Mitchell, on a field recording trip, recorded Stackhouse in Dundee, Miss., in August 1967, but by that time Nighthawk, who had just been in the hospital, could only back his cousin up on second guitar. Nighthawk thought he’d been given poisoned whiskey, but Stackhouse took him to a faith healer–a “preacher woman” in Arkansas who read fortunes with a deck of cards. Her diagnosis: Robert just had “that old-time dropsy.” Stackhouse said, “She said she coulda cured him but it done run too long then…then she say he was a sinner, too. She say if he’d ‘a been a Christian, she coulda probably done better with him.” On Nov. 5, 1967, Robert McCullum, suffering from congestive heart failure, died of a myocardial infarction at the Helena Hospital.
Robert Nighthawk was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, along with Louis Jordan, Albert King, Ma Rainey, and the man who helped him make his first recordings, Big Joe Turner.