Robert McCollum (Robert McCullum)
Robert Lee McCoy
Born Robert McCollum
November 30, 1909, Helena, Arkansas
Died November 5, 1967, Helena, Arkansas
One of the greatest blues slide guitarists, Robert Night Hawk influenced Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and hosts of others
1924: Learned to play harmonica. In the 1964 interview with Mike Bloomfield, Night Hawk elaborated: "Well, I liked that [the harmonica] back in '24...youngster name a Jones, he's out a Louisiana, named Johnny Jones, and he learned me to blow harp....He was working on a job and he was blowing and I wanted to learn and, see he liked me to learn, so I did...."
1931: Was taught to play guitar by his cousin Houston Stackhouse. The two were popular performers at parties and juke joints in Mississippi. In the 1964 interview with Mike Bloomfield, Night Hawk says "....No, I didn't...even try [to learn the guitar]...until '31...I said I wanted to learn to play it an' asked Stackhouse would he learn me. He said he would...it wouldn't be easy, but he'd learn me. I told him that I was goin on, so...I didn't stay there. We went to a place called Murphy's Bayou an' I was out there three weeks an' when I come back, I could play three pieces."
1932: Played at the Stovall Plantation at the reception after Muddy Waters's first wedding.
Circa 1933: Memphis. Night Hawk had a jug band.
1935: Moved to St. Louis after a scrape with the law and took the name Robert Lee McCoy (his mother's maiden name). He fell in with Big Joe Williams and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. He performed on their records for Bluebird starting in 1937.
1937: Lived in St. Louis, recorded in Chicago. Night Hawk and Big Joe Williams performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's first Bluebird sessions. The first release was the classic Good Morning School Girl/Bluebird Blues. Night Hawk, as Robert Lee McCoy, played on at least four other sides. Night Hawk/McCoy made 13 recordings of his own in 1937 with backing from Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson I, for example G-Man Blues. One of his records from this period was Prowlin' Night Hawk. He adopted the name.
1938: Speckled Red (piano) sat in on some of the eight recordings Night Hawk made in 1938.
1940: Switched to the Decca label. At least four sides were recorded, including two with Big Joe's Washboard Band. Night Hawk was influenced by Tampa Red's slide technique, which he adapted and made very much his own. Contrary to popular belief, Tampa Red did not actually teach Night Hawk how to use the slide, however. In the 1964 interview with Bloomfield Night Hawk says:
RN: We played house rent parties and birthday parties an'...mostly that time, we played mostly taverns at that time. And then in '41 I started playin at...on State Street. Played there three years. On every night.
MB: Was it...were you playing primarily slide style then? Were you...?
RN: Well, I kind of started it then. Little bit, late hours of the night...I'd...one of them mean blues I'd play with the slide.
MB: Who showed you the, the...you know... where did you start learning the slide?
RN: That was just something, I don't know, I didn't exactly learn it from Tampa Red. Well, I used to like his playing with that slide, so I just got an idea that I wanted to play with it.
MB: You just, you just picked it up yourself?
RN: Just picked it up myself.
1943-46: Appeared on Helena's radio station KFFA plugging Bright Star Flour, in competition with Sonny Boy's show for King Biscuit Flour. Night Hawk also appeared on WROX (Clarksdale, Miss), WDIA (Memphis) and other stations. In the mid-40s Night Hawk switched from acoustic to electric guitar. Pinetop Perkins (piano) was invited by Night Hawk to join his band. They toured the Delta. In 1945 Night Hawk went to Chicago and with Pinetop worked with Sonny Boy Williamson on the latter's "King Biscuit Time" radio show on KFFA. Kansas City Red (a.k.a Arthur Lee Stevenson) was Night Hawk's drummer. In 1945, Night Hawk taught slide guitar to Earl Hooker, who performed occasionally with Night Hawk on tours until 1949, when Earl moved to Memphis to join Ike Turner's band.
1948-50: Night Hawk impressed Muddy Waters, who introduced him to record label Aristocrat. He recorded Sweet Black Angel (a.k.a Black Angel Blues) and Annie Lee Blues, and other songs. Versions of both songs are on the "And This Is Maxwell Street" tapes.
1951-53: Night Hawk recorded for the United and States labels (States was a subsidiary of United). The Moon Is Rising, (Gonna Move To) Kansas City, and other songs. About 1951 Pinetop Perkins rejoined Night Hawk in Chicago.
1960s: Night Hawk travelled widely throughout the South. He returned to Chicago from time to time, and often visited his home town. He wasn't recorded again until 1964, when he had several studio sessions and was captured live on Maxwell Street in the documentary film, And This Is Free. The "And This Is Maxwell Street" recordings are among his last. In May of 1964 he is known to have performed at the University of Chicago and to have done some studio recordings in mid-October in Chicago. At least some of the "And This Is Maxwell Street" recordings were made on the 18th of October 1964, according to the tape boxes.
28 August 1967: In Dundee, Mississippi Night Hawk made his last known recordings, which were released on Testament's Masters of Modern Blues: Robert Night Hawk/Houston Stackhouse (Testament 5010).
5 November 1967: Died in Helena, Arkansas. (Although according to some sources he died in Dundee, Mississippi.)
© Allan Murphy 1997
What critics, historians, and other musicians have said about Robert Night Hawk
B.B. King calls Robert Night Hawk one of his idols in a recent Tokyo interview
Robert Night Hawk's son Sam Carr, in Tokyo, had a chance to hear some of the And This Is Free tapes for the first time.