my black angel for a nickel,
When Nighthawk stepped into the Aristocrat studios on November 10, 1948 it had been about eight years since he recorded under his own name. In the intervening years his sound had undergone a transformation when he amplified his guitar in the early 1940's and mastered his brilliant slide technique. Nighthawk amplified his guitar while playing on KFFA radio in Helena and his distinctive sound brought him regional fame.
People Would Stare At His Guitar
Nighthawk's son, the drummer Sam Carr, commented on his father's return to Helena in 1941 complete with electric guitar: "People would come and stare at his guitar when he was playing it, they just couldn't figure it out."16 Muddy Waters states that he may have picked up the electric guitar in Chicago: "...He came to Chicago and he found out what was happening and he was good on fixin' instruments, you know, and I think just bought him a pickup and made his an electric, you know, a DeArmond pickup."30 Nighthawk forged his style on the influence of his idol, Tampa Red, combining it with the music of his delta roots to form one of the most distinctive sounds in all of the blues. It was this sound that he brought to Aristocrat that day1948.
Nighthawk was already a seasoned recording musician having recorded extensively for Bluebird in the 1930's by the time he returned to Chicago. He had recorded his debut in Chicago almost ten years earlier making him one of the earliest Delta bluesmen to record in Chicago and setting a precedent for countless to follow.
Once in Chicago he resumed his acquaintance with Muddy Waters who arranged for his recording session with Aristocrat. "I put him on the label" Waters stated.30 Waters further explained: "Well. I taken him to my company, you know and...I helped him get on a record. Yeah, I taken him around to Chess, and then Chess heard him play, and he liked it."30
Aristocrat was founded by Charles and Evelyn Aron. From June through December 1947, talent scout Sammy Goldberg helped to point the label toward rhythm and blues; he brought Jump Jackson, Tom Archia, Clarence Samuels, Andrew Tibbs, and Sunnyland Slim to the label. Initially, their partners were Fred and Mildred Brount and Art Spiegel, none of whom took a leadership role in the business. By September 1947, Leonard Chess, the proprietor of a neighborhood bar and after-hours joint called the Macomba Lounge, had invested in the company and become involved in the sales end of Aristocrat's operations. Leonard Chess's name was first associated with the company in an item that appeared in Billboard on October 11, 1947; he was identified as a new addition to "the sales staff." By then he was already wholesaling Aristocrat product out of the trunk of his Buick.
Over time, Leonard Chess increased his share in the firm by buying the Brounts out. As he became more involved in the record business, he increasingly left the day-to-day operation of the Macomba to his brother Phil. After the Arons separated in 1948, Leonard Chess and Evelyn Aron ran the firm. In December 1949, Evelyn Aron married Art Sheridan and left to form American Distributing. The Chess brothers bought out her remaining share and became the sole owners; only at this point did Phil Chess become involved in the record company's operations. On June 3, 1950, the brothers changed the name of the company to Chess. Aristocrat thus survived in its original form a little over three years. For a small, undercapitalized company it was quite prolific. It appears that 264 titles were recorded by Aristocrat for release, and another 28 tracks recorded by others were purchased and released during the lifetime of the label, for a total of 292.
Nighthawk cut three sessions for Aristocrat through early 1950 under the "Nighthawks" name except for "My Sweet Lovin' Woman/Return Mail Blues" listed on the label as by Robert Nighthawk. He recorded four sides at his first session: "Down the Line" and "Handsome Lover" with his girlfriend Ethel Mae on vocals and "My Sweet Lovin' Woman with Nighthawk taking the vocals. "Return Mail Blues" remained unissued from this session. Houston Stackhouse sheds some light on Ethel Mae: "Well, her name was Nanny Mae...he named her Ethel Mae. She was from Helena. She sung with him a pretty good while."30 Nighthawk also employed his then current wife Hazel as a vocalist and drummer during this period. Hazel recalls singing on some Chess numbers but these were never issued and no masters were ever found in the Chess vaults.
Hazel did eventually get on record in 1954. Vee-Jay picked the El Dorados to cut the record "Annie's Answer" (a sequel to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie") and asked them to find a girl who could sing with them. The group auditioned all of Vee-Jay's female singers and finally picked Hazel McCollum. While Hazel would record several other songs for Vee-Jay, none were ever released.
His next session on July 12, 1949 was possibly his best. He waxed five sides that included "Black Angel Blues (Sweet Black Angel)" (based on Lucille Bogan's "Black Angel Blues" from 1930 and covered by Tampa Red in 1934 with the same title) and "Annie Lee Blues (Anna Lee)" based on Tampa Red's "Anna Lou Blues" from 1940. "Annie Lee Blues" cracked the R&B charts on December 31, 1949 reaching the number 13 spot and staying on the charts for one week. Billboard magazine wrote of the record: "moody blues could pick up business in the Southern market."39 In response to Nighthawk's success with the song Tampa Red recut the song in 1950 as "Sweet Little Angel." B.B. King later covered "Sweet Black Angel" as "Sweet Little Angel" in 1956, a song he played in his DJ days on WDIA radio. The pairing became a double-sided hit. Nighthawk's style was fully formed showing him in total control, playing stunning crystal clear slide balanced with his deep mellow vocals. Critic Robert Palmer describes his notes as "dripping slowly out of the amplifier as thick oozing oil."22 The group was mentioned in Down Beat on July 1, 1949 but its session for Aristocrat didn't get covered until the next issue, two weeks later. Also cut at this session was "Sugar Papa" with Ethel Mae on vocals, "Return Mail Blues and "She Knows How To Love a Man" with Nighthawk on vocals.
Nighthawk came back to Chicago in 1950 to record his final session for Chess. Pinetop Perkins made the trip to Chicago with Nighthawk: "Robert Nighthawk took me to Chicago, in 1950."28 Nighthawk's session came in January 5, 1950 starting with Ethel Mae on "Good News" and taking the vocals himself on the brilliant "Six Three O", "Prison Bound" and "Jackson Town Girl" which was a reworking of Leroy Carr's 1934 song "Shady Lane Blues." Unable to capitalize on his initial success he would leave Chess for the fledgling Chicago label United and it's subsidiary States.
During his Chess/Aristocrat days Nighthawk worked mainly out of Cairo, Illinois, although after the records brought renewed fame up north he worked regularly at one of Chicago's leading blues joints, the 708 Club.9 Pinetop Perkins recalls playing in Chicago with Nighthawk: "They had a place called The 708 club. I worked there with Robert. Jimmy [Rogers] played there with Muddy at The 708. He was doin' just like we were. Just two guitars and drums."28 John Brim recalls Nighthawk playing at club called the H&T: "Robert Nighthawk was playing there. I think, when he made "Anna Lee" and "Sweet Black Angel", and they left town. Robert Nighthawk, they say his wife play drums when he was playing at the H&T. And she played drums and Robert played guitar."42 Little Hudson also would see Nighthawk in th clubs during this period: "And Nighthawk-that's another guy I used to sit up all nightlong, had to go to work, sit up everywhere he went to hear him play. He's a nice, easygoing guy. Had a girl sing with him-I guess was his old lady named Anne-but she died with pneumonia a long time before he died. He used to play there in a tavern at Thrity-first and Indiana."42 Nighthawk had an extended stay in Chicago in 1951 (Musicians Union Local 208 posted his indefinite contract with the Qunicy Club on March 1; this was soon replaced by an indefinite contract with the 708 Club on March 15).
Every Corner Was A Club, And Everythin' Was Lively
For a small town Cairo played an important role in blues history. Cairo was situated midway between the Delta and Chicago and was considered to be where the North began for rural southern blacks. "They had a black curtain on the bus - white folks in front, us in the back. They took it down in Cairo," a former plantation worker told to National Geographic writer Charles E. Cobb Jr.25 In addition to Nighthawk Delta musicians such as Earl Hooker, Houston Stackhouse, Pinetop Perkins and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) used the town as a key jumping off location. Houston Stackhouse recalls that he and Nighthawk first ran into Sonny Boy in Cairo: "In '46 I met him. Me and Robert come up to Cairo, Illinois. In Cairo he was namin' himself "Little Boy Blue." He was Sonny Boy Williamson when he come back to Helena."30 Another reason Nighthawk liked the town can be seen in a comment by Kansas City Red: "Cairo was a good-time place, that was one of the best. Helena, Arkansas, used to be a good swingin' place, and Cairo was just about like that. Well, then practically every corner was a club, and everythin' was lively."25 Most of the town's nightspots were owed by the Wade brothers. "Wade brothers had the whole town sewed up", recalls Perkins. "They owned over half of Cairo."28 Pinetop Perkins recalls going up to Cairo with Nighthawk rather sourly: "I went to Cairo with Robert Nighthawk and, shoot, he left me there."28
Nighthawk stayed away from Chicago for much of the fifties returning in 1964 where he cut two more side for Chess on June 30 of that year. He would cut the powerful "Sorry My Angel" as well as the contemporary sounding "Someday" with Buddy Guy and Walter Horton. Nighthawk's complete Chess recordings can be found on a now out of print UK import called Robert Nighthawk/Forest City Joe: Black Angel Blues and ISweet Black Angel on the Roots label. There are also Italian and Japanese LP's both titled Black Angel Blues that collect all his Chess recordings. Chess has released The Aristocrat of the Blues which is a great two CD set that features eight Nighthawk cuts as well as a number of rough and tumble Muddy Waters sides plus many other surprises. Also released on Chess is Chess Blue Guitar-Two Decades of Killer Fretwork 1949 to 1969 which is a double CD filled with rarities and contains "Someday" which is the first U.S. release of this track.*Robert Nighthawk, Sweet Black Angel
Lane Talks About Nighthawk
All of Nighthawk's Chess sides are collected on Sweet Black Angel (Roots)
Tracks 4, 6-8, 11, 13 can be found on Robert Nighthawk: Prowling With The Nighthawk (Document DOCD-32-20-6)
Tracks 1, 4-8, 11-14 can be found on The Aristocrat of the Blues (Chess CHD2-9387)
Tracks 2,9,10 can be found on Robert Nighthawk/Forest City Joe: Black Angel Blues (Chess UK Red 29) [Out of print]
Several items by the Nighthawks first appeared on an LP identified here as Chess [E] 6499 433. This was an individual disc in a 4-LP boxed set titled Genesis Volume 2: The Beginnings of Rock--Memphis to Chicago. The boxed set was issued by UK Phonogram in the early 1970s; the number for the entire set was Chess 6641 125. These titles were: "Down the Line", "Handsome Lover", "Sugar Papa", Prison Bound","Good News."