"Now I am the prowling night
Nighthawk (known as Robert Lee McCoy during this period) recorded for Bluebird and Decca between 1937 and 1940 both under his own name and as an accompanist. This was Nighthawk's busiest period on record, recording 22 sides for Bluebird and 4 sides for Decca and many sides as a session musician backing up such artists as Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and many others. Nighthawk recorded three lengthy sessions at Bluebird's Aurora Illinois studios. All three Bluebird sessions find Nighthawk with different accompanists with the exception of Sonny Boy Williamson who plays harmonica on every session. Nighthawk did one session for Decca in 1940.
Bluebird Records is a sub-label of RCA Victor Records originally created in 1932 to counter the American Record Company in the "3 records for a dollar" market. Along with ARC's Perfect Records, Melotone Records and Romeo Records, and the independent US Decca label, Bluebird became one of the best selling 'cheap' labels of the 1930s and early 1940s.
In spite of the economic depression of the 1930's, blues as a business was slowly but steadily on the upswing. With a wealth of talent available, and more arriving every day to both make and buy records, a few large record companies were regularly recording in Chicago. Brunswick, RCA Victor/Bluebird, Columbia, and others set up offices and studios, and with the influence of professional A&R men and producers (most notably Lester Melrose at Bluebird), certain subcategories and signature sounds began emerging. Particularly notable was the "Bluebird sound. Sam Charters characterized the sound as the "Bluebird Beat" or more unkindly as the "Melrose Mess" by Mike Rowe in his pioneering book Chicago Blues. As Rowe notes "it was a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who was really responsible for shaping the Chicago sound of the late 30's and 40's." Melrose had said "From March 1934 to February 1951 I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records…" As Rowe further explains: "But Melrose had more than a large stable of blues artists under his control. Since only a few of them had regular accompanists most of them would play on each others records and thus Melrose has a completely self-contained unit… …The final stage of this musical incest was completed when they started recording each others songs." The result was a consistent, sometime cookie cutter sound, although the best artists would consistently transcend these limitations. The "Bluebird Sound" anticipated the Chicago blues of the post-war era featuring tight, smooth small band arrangements that were filled out with piano, bass drums and often clarinet or saxophone.
The first session was recorded May 5, 1937 with Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams propelling the rhythm. Nighthawk cut six sides at this session all of which were released at the time. These sides show him to have developed a distinctive single string style but still ages away from the magnificent electric slide guitarist he was to become. Listening to these early sides is akin to the shock of hearing Muddy Waters Stovall Plantation sides for the first time.
The musicians entered the studios on May 5, 1937 for a marathon recording session. Nighthawk cut six sides at this with backing by Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams. The May 5th sessions were also Sonny Boy Williamson's first and Nighthawk and Joe Williams backed him on this legendary session that produced such enduring classics as "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Blue Bird Blues" and "Sugar Mama". In addition Big Joe Williams recorded eight sides under his own name with Nighthawk and Sonny Boy backing him and Nighthawk also backed Walter Davis on an eight-song session.
Nighthawk had developed a distinctive single string style that is heard to good effect on these sides. He also plays some bottleneck most notably on the opening passages of "G-Man", "Don't Mistreat Your Woman" and "Prowling Night-Hawk". It was this latter song's popularity that was the basis for his changing his surname in the early 40's. Also notable are "Tough Luck" and "Sweet Pepper Mama" featuring fine ensemble playing with superb harmonica from Sonny Boy that foreshadowed the sound of the electrified combos of post-war Chicago.
It would be six months before Nighthawk returned to the Bluebird studios on November 11, 1937. He cut eight sides, seven of which are included here but the eighth, "Danger Blues", was unreleased at the time and the master has never been found. The sound is noticeably fuller with Walter Davis' piano heard on five songs. "Take It Easy, Baby" was the session's most enduring song and one he cut again in 1951 for the United label and was captured playing the song live on Maxwell Street in 1964.
More than a year would go by before he cut what was to be his final session on December 18, 1938 under the name "Ramblin' Bob." This session yielded eight more sides enlivened by the piano of Speckled Red and on "She's Got What It Takes" Nighthawk can be heard exhorting him to "play that thing Mr. Red." This final Bluebird session was more stylistically diverse and shows Nighthawk showing greater range as a vocalist particularly evident on "Every Day And Night", perhaps his finest vocal performance from this period. This song was a reworking of Tampa Red's 1935 "Don't Dog Your Woman" later covered by Sonny Boy Williamson as "Million Years Blues" in 1941 and by B.B. King as "When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer", reaching #8 on the R&B charts in 1954.
It would be June 5, 1940 before Nighthawk would step into a studio again this time recording four sides for Decca as "Peetie's Boy." The name "Peetie's Boy" likely coming from his association with Peetie Wheatstraw a very popular recording artist of the time. Big Joe Williams recalled: "Around St. Louis he played a right smart with Peetie...different jobs."9 Two songs from this session were with Nighthawk's girlfriend, Ann Sortier. Henry Townsend recalls them playing together: "Ann Sortier worked with him in Chicago for a long time. They were pretty famous on the South Side. ...In most cases Robert kept some gal with him, and whoever she was, he put her to work."19 These represent Nighthawk's last pre-war sessions and produced the beautiful "Friars Point Blues"*** featuring his finest slide work to date and only a few steps removed from the magnificent slide work he would be famous for in later years. All 21 of Nighthawk's Bluebird sides plus his 4 Decca sides are collected on Robert Lee McCoy: Prowling Nighthawk on the Catfish label and Robert Nighthawk: Prowling With The Nighthawk on the Document label.
**Percy is attributed to being Nighthawk's brother although it seems more likely he was a friend and musical partner. Both Nighthawk's daughter (Geni Ward) and his son (Sam Carr) say Percy was a friend. The photo was given to Laura Dukes by Nighthawk (she knew him as Robert McCollum) in the 30's as she explains in a 1977 interview: "Now I also had another picture with Robert McCollum and his brother Percy. Robert is sitting in a chair with his guitar and Percy was sittin' on the arm of the chair with his harmonica. This Swedish man . . . [Bengt] Olsson took it and said he'd bring it back like he did the other one, but he never did. I sure wish he'd send it back to me. That's the only picture of Robert McCollum I had." Jim O'Neal interviewed Muddy Waters in the 80's and asked if Percy was Nighthawk's brother: "Yeah. Supposed to been his brother-I don't think they was brothers, though."
****A note on Friar's Point: Mississippi was one of only three states that continued prohibition after 1933 making Friars Point a popular weekend hangout because it was across the river from Helena, Arkansas where liqueur was legal and hence became an active bootlegging center. Another reason was there was curfew in Clarksdale, one of the Delta's main towns. Muddy Waters recalled: "Twelve O'Clock, you better be out of there, get off the streets. The great big police come down Sunflower street with that big cap on, man, waving that stick...That's why all this country stuff, people go out in the country. Friars Point'd go up to four o'clock in the morning, sometimes all night."38 Friars Point was also immortalized in 1937 in Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues":
man get personal, want you to have your fun (2x)
And the final line:
But I'm goin' back to Friars Point, if I be rockin'to my head
Muddy Waters said the only time he saw Robert Johnson play was on the front porch of Hirsberg's Drugstore in Friars Point. Friars Point seems to have been a regular stop on the circuit Delta bluesmen would travel from town to town through towns like Rosedale, Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville and others. he Mississippi Blues Commission placed a Blues Trail marker in Friars Point in recognition of musician Robert Nighthawk, who at various times called Friars Point home. In 1940, Nighthawk recorded "Friars Point Blues", singing of "going back to Friars Point, down in sweet old Dixie Land." Nighthawk's son, drummer Sam Carr, was born in Friars Point.
Tracks 1-7, 10, 11-15, 20, 25 can be found on Robert Nighthawk: Prowling With The Nighthawk (Document DOCD-32-20-6)
Tracks 1-25 can be found on Robert Lee McCoy: Prowling Nighthawk (Catfish)
Tracks 1-21 can be found
on Robert Lee McCoy: The Bluebird Recordings 1937-1938 (RCA