Thursday, June 17, 2010
Born in Helena, Arkansas.By the time he was 15, young Robert had learned to play the harmonica from an obscure musician from Louisiana by the name of Johnny Jones. Robert soon felt confident enough playing the harp that he decided to leave home and took to the life of a busking musician. And, for the remainder of his life, he was ever on the move.
His early travels reportedly took him to Memphis, where it is reported that while still a teenager, he worked with Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. And, by 1930, he had apparently reached as far north as St. Louis, playing alongside pianist, Peetie Wheatstraw. This position earned the youngster the moniker Peetie's Boy.
Back home in the Delta, Robert's life took a significant turn when he met his distant cousin, Houston Stackhouse, that same year. A year younger than Robert, Stackhouse was a guitarist deeply influenced by the style of Tommy Johnson. In turn, he introduced Robert to the rudiments of playing guitar, and it wasn't very long afterwards that Robert soon surpassed Stackhouse on the instrument.
he left home at an early age to become a busking musician, and after a period wandering through southern Mississippi, settled for a time in Memphis, Tennessee where he played with local orchestras and musicians, such as the Memphis Jug Band. A particular influence during this period was Houston Stackhouse, from whom he learnt to play slide guitar, and with whom he appeared on the radio in Jackson, Mississippi.After further travels through Mississippi, he found it advisable to take his mother's name, and as Robert Lee McCoy moved to St. Louis, Missouri in the mid 1930s. Local musicians with whom he played included Henry Townsend, Big Joe Williams, and Sonny Boy Williamson. This led to two recording dates in 1937, the four musicians recording together at the Victor Records studio in Aurora, Illinois as well as recordings under his own name, including "Prowling Night-Hawk" (recorded 5 May 1937), from which he was take his later pseudonym.The electric guitar was a fairly new instrument in the late-1930s. Robert combined his new found fondness for playing slide with the amplified guitar and created an eerie sound that quickly caught the attention of several young musicians. Perhaps its greatest influence occurred when Robert returned to the Delta with this style. The haunting tone enamored a trio of players who took the electric slide to new heights and whose own fame surpassed that of Robert's. That trio was Earl Hooker, Elmore James and Muddy Waters.
These sessions led to Chicago blues careers for the other musicians, though not, however, for McCoy, who continued his rambling life, playing and recording (for Victor/Bluebird and Decca) solo and with various musicians, under various names. He also became a familiar voice on local radio stations; then Robert Lee McCoy disappeared.
Within a few years, he resurfaced as the electric slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, and began recording for Aristocrat and Chess Records, the latter of which was also Muddy Waters' label; in 1949 and 1950, the two mens' styles were close enough that they were in competition for promotional activity; as Waters was the more marketable commodity, being more reliable and a more confident stage communicator, he received the attention. Though Nighthawk continued to perform and to record, taking up with United and States in 1951 and 1952, he failed to achieve great commercial success.
In 1963, Nighthawk was rediscovered busking in Chicago and this led to further recording sessions and club dates, and to his return to Arkansas, where he appeared on the King Biscuit Time radio programme on KFFA. As late as 1964, Nighthawk could be found playing on Chicago's, Maxwell Street. He had a stroke followed by a heart attack and died of heart failure at his home in Helena.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Houston Stackhouse was born Houston Goff on September 28, 1910, the son of Garfield Goff from Wesson, Mississippi. He only learned of his parentage and name at birth in the 1970s while trying to obtain a passport. He was raised on the Randall Ford Plantation by James Wade Stackhouse. As a youngster, he heard music from fiddler Lace Powell, who lived on the plantation, and two visiting uncles. His musical education began when the family moved a few miles north to Crystal Springs around 1925 and encountered the brothers Tommy, Mager, and Clarence Johnson. In addition to learning from the Johnson brothers, he was inspired by local musicians, as well as the records of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Blake. He launched his own career in the mid-to-late 1930s playing all over Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana and working with musicians such as the Chatmon brothers (who performed as the Mississippi Sheiks), Robert Johnson, Charlie McCoy, Walter Vinson, and others. His two most enduring partnerships from this period were with Carey “Ditty” Mason and his cousin Robert McCollum—better known as Robert Nighthawk, whom he taught how to play guitar.
In 1946, Nighthawk asked Stackhouse to join him in Helena, where Stackhouse stayed for almost twenty-five years. For a year, he was a member of Nighthawk’s band, playing throughout Arkansas and Mississippi and on KFFA radio promoting Mother’s Best Flour. After splitting with Nighthawk in 1947, he joined with drummer James “Peck” Curtis, who was working on KFFA’s King Biscuit Time alongside guitarist Joe Willie Wilkins and pianists Robert Traylor and Pinetop Perkins. In 1948, Sonny Boy Williamson rejoined the show, and the group performed all over the Delta, using radio spots to promote their appearances. Stackhouse played with all the important musicians who passed through Helena, including Jimmy Rogers, and Sammy Lawhorn, both of whom he tutored on guitar, as well as Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Willie Love, Ernest Lane, and Roosevelt Sykes. While he was an active blues musician at night, he worked days at the Chrysler plant in West Memphis (Crittenden County) between 1948 and 1954.
Unlike many of his fellow bluesmen, Stackhouse remained in the South, continuing to perform locally as well as working regular jobs through the 1950s. He continued to play with notable musicians through the 1960s, including Boyd Gilmore, Houston Boines, Frank Frost, and Baby Face Turner. In 1965, Sonny Boy Williamson returned to Helena and enlisted Stackhouse to join him once again on King Biscuit Time. That May, the group was recorded live by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, a recording subsequently released under Williamson’s name as King Biscuit Time. Williamson died shortly after that recording, and Stackhouse continued briefly on the program with former partner Robert Nighthawk.
In 1967, field researcher George Mitchell recorded Stackhouse in Dundee, Mississippi. The group, calling themselves the Blues Rhythm Boys, consisted of “Peck” Curtis and Nighthawk. These were the final recordings of Nighthawk, who died a few months later. A week later, field researcher David Evans recorded Stackhouse in Crystal Springs with longtime partner Carey “Ditty” Mason. With the death of Mason in 1969 and Curtis the following year, Stackhouse moved to Memphis in 1970, where he lived with Joe Willie Wilkins and Wilkins’s wife, Carrie. He began taking part in the blues revival, touring with Wilkins throughout the decade as the King Biscuit Boys, traveling with the Memphis Blues Caravan, playing various festivals, and making a lone trip overseas to Vienna, Austria, in 1976. He recorded for Adelphi in 1972, with various live tracks appearing on compilations. Outside of playing the first two Delta Blues Festivals in Greenville, Mississippi, he largely retired from music after his European tour and moved to Crystal Springs.
Stackhouse returned to Helena, where he died on September 23, 1980, at the Helena Hospital, having outlived most of his peers. A son, Houston Stackhouse Jr., survived him.