Nighthawk was born Robert Lee McCollum in Helena, Arkansas on November 30, 1909. He left home to hobo widely and play harmonica at juke joints through the South from the mid 1920's for several years before taking up guitar in 1930. In the mid-20's he worked with Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band in Memphis. Nighthawk learned guitar from his cousin Houston Stackhouse and the two worked together at parties and jukes in the Hollandale, Mississippi area from the late 1920's to the early 1930's. He worked with John Lee Hooker in Memphis and Jimmie Rodgers in Jackson, Miss. in the early 1930's. For the rest of the 30's he worked with the Mississippi Sheiks, Henry Townsend, Joe Williams and others in Friar's Point, Miss., St. Louis, and Chicago.
In the mid 1935 he moved to St. Louis after a scrape with the law and took the name Robert McCoy after his mother's maiden name. There he played with Big Joe Williams, Charley Jordan, Walter Davis, Henry Townsend, Peetie Wheatstraw, and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. He made his first recordings in 1937 for Bluebird (in Aurora, Il. with Sonny Boy Williamson) and was used extensively as a sideman (playing guitar or harp) on Chicago recordings of the late 30's and early 40's. He adopted the name "Nighthawk" after one of his early releases "Prowling Nighthawk". Perhaps his most successful recording from this period was "Friar's Point Blues".
In 1940 he moved to the Decca label. He worked the Helena, Arkansas area through the forties and into the fifties. From 1943-1947 he appeared on the "Bright Star Flour" and "Mothers Best Flour" Shows broadcast on KFFA radio out of Helena. This show was competition for Sonny Boy Williamson's show King Biscuit Time. Nighthawk also appeared on WROX radio out of Clarksdale, Miss. and WDIA radio of Memphis during the 1940's and 1950's.
Nighthawk was based in Helena during the 1950's and 60's, recording only sporatically. He recorded for the United and States labels in Chicago 1951-1954. He worked clubs, jukes, picnics, fish fries, and parties in the South, St. Louis, and Helena, Arkansas through the 1950's and into the early 1960's. He returned to Chicago and worked Maxwell Street for tips in 1963 and appeared in the film "And This Is Free" the same year. In 1964 he formed the 'Flames of Rythym' and worked clubs and taverns in Chicago. That same year he cut a split session as a leader and a sideman for the Testament label. The following year he was playing clubs in Jackson, Miss. and working outside music as a migrant worker in Florida. That year he also appeared on King Biscuit Time on KFFA, Helena, Arkansas. For the next two years he worked outside music and did occasional club work in the Helena and Lula, Miss. areas. He died on November 5, 1967 of heart failure and is buried in Helena, Arkansas.
Nighthawk switched from acoustic to electric guitar in the mid 1940's. He was influenced by Tampa Red's slide technique, which he adapted and made very much his own. Other influences inclued Robert Johnson, Houston Stackhouse, and Peetie Wheatstraw. Nighthawk was one of the first musicians to translate the bottleneck style to electric guitar in the early 1940's. He was an influence on Earl Hooker, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters, who repaid the favor by getting Nighthawk several recording dates with Aristocrat in the 1948-50 period. The beautiful "Sweet Black Angel" became his signature piece; when B.B. King re-recorded it as "Sweet Little Angel" he had a major hit.
Photos Courtesy of Studio IT. All rights reserved.
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