Sometimes in music, a singer comes along whose influence and output far outweighs any degree of commercial success that s/he has gained during their own lifetime and that can certainly be said of Robert Nighthawk. Born in 1909 in Helena, Arkansas, on the west bank of the Mississippi Delta and just one of the many millions of African-Americans who made the long-term migration from south to north, Nighthawk is a pivotal figure in the evolution of the blues. He occupies a key role, a bridge if you will between the rural Delta blues that he grew up with and the urban blues of both Memphis and Chicago, the latter of which he made his home. His influence on other musicians of his own generation and of subsequent generations is incalculable, but that distinctive slide guitar technique undoubtedly influenced the musicians of the calibre of Muddy Waters. As with the other musicians showcased in this ongoing series, Acrobat have grouped together a variety of labels and this is especially useful in the blues idiom where 78s tended to be recorded for a multitude of independent labels, and it goes without saying that the original shellac is near impossible to find and the timing is extremely generous with over seventy minutes per side, equating to forty-eight songs in total. These include; Aristocrat, Bluebird, Chess, Decca and United. While, Acrobat have cleaned up the originals and both the instruments and voice sound clear, they have been careful not to take away the integrity of the music. As for the music, it spans three decades and does a mighty fine job of piecing together his recording life. Even that, however, raises a few intriguing questions, not least of which the following: what exactly was he doing in the period 1940-1948? That is one of the mysteries to Nighthawk’s life that will probably remain unanswered and it is in part his mystique that is such an attraction in the first place.
Nighthawk went under a variety of aliases, and Nighthawk itself was not his real life name. He was born Robert McCollum. The first song on the collection, ‘Prowling Night’, provided the inspiration for the first invented surname, but such were his storytelling qualities that he recorded under a panoply of other names ranging from Robert McCoy to Ramblin’ Bob, and not forgetting the intriguing Peetie’s boy. Later in his career, the expanded collective of musicians were known as Robert Nighthawk and his Nighthawks Band. What this writer retains above all from this outstanding musician and fascinating human being is the quality and universality of the lyrics and storytelling. In, ‘Lonesome World’, the lyrics demonstrate some very basic awareness that elsewhere on the planet, someone else was experiencing a different climate. Most probably, his extensive travelling inspired and informed his songwriting choices, but equally they afforded him the most basic knowledge base that humanity differed from one locality to another, even if that bank of knowledge was in reality focused within the confines of the United States, a big enough entity in its own right. Everyday concerns are tackled on, ‘I Have Spent My Bonus’, ‘Next Door Neighbor’, and travelling instincts on, ‘Freight Train Blues’. Possible reasons for his early demise are hinted at on, ‘Good Gambling’, and forsaken friendship and love appear to underpin a good deal of his lyrics as illustrated on, ‘You’re All I’ve Got To Live For’, ‘My Sweet Lovin’ Woman’, and, ‘My Friends Have Forsaken Me’. It is equally quite conceivable that Robert Nighthawk was also a keen observer of other humans and adept at conveying human emotions in song form.
This was a musician who lived life to the full (and, ultimately, that may have been his Achilles heal that curtailed his all to brief lifespan), but one whose command of his guitar and cool and composed vocal delivery earned the esteem of his contemporaries. So much so, that when he began to record, not as a solo performer, but with an extended line up of musicians, he was able to count on some of the very best musicians to accompany him. Regulars included some of the piano greats in Curtis Jones, Pinetop Perkins, Speckeld Red, Roosevelt Sykes, while harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson and bassist Willie Dixon performed on his records, and that fact considerably adds to the listening pleasure. Ethel Mae joined him on vocals on several songs for a period from the late 1940s.
Robert Nighthawk led, by any definition of the term, a bohemian lifestyle. The great pity is that he passed away aged just forty-seven, and this after recording in 1964 a highly esteemed live recording that is now regarded by aficionados as one of the greatest live blues albums of all-time, and that is available elsewhere. The music contained within this anthology is both of its time, and like the greatest of all music, will never date and continue eternally to appeal to curious individuals who are interested in learning more about the human condition. A splendid sixteen page booklet authored by Paul Watts sets the scene as well as anyone could possibly do, and it is little wonder that Robert Nighthawk entered into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983. If any musician deserved that accolade, Nighthawk certainly did. For those wishing to discover more about Robert Nighthawk’s life and career, there is a website by Jeff Harris that can be unreservedly recommended at: http://nighthawk.sundayblues.org/united.htm