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.