ROBERT NIGHTHAWK BIOGRAPHY
Robert Lee McCollum (30 November 1909–5 November 1967) was an American bluesman who played and recorded under the names Robert Lee McCoy and Robert Nighthawk.
Born in Helena, Arkansas, 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. There he played with local orchestras and musicians, such as the Memphis Jug Band. A particular influence 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 he moved to St. Louis, Missouri. 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.
These sessions led to Chicago careers for the other musicians, but not for McCoy, who simply 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 reappeared as the electric slide-guitarist Robert Nighthawk, and began recording for Chess Records. This was also Muddy Waters’ label; the two men’s styles were close enough that they were in competition for promotional activity — and as Waters was the more saleable commodity, being more reliable and a more confident stage communicator, he received the attention. Though Nighthawk continued to perform and to record, he failed to achieve any great commercial success.
In 1963, some ten years later, Nighthawk was discovered 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. He had a stroke, followed by a heart attack, and died at his home in Helena.
Essential Robert Nighthawk recordings
Prowling with the Nighthawk (Document) — twenty-six sides (1937–1952) recorded for Bluebird, Decca, Aristocrat, and United. Ramblin’ Bob (Saga) — twenty-four sides (1937–1952) recorded for Victor, Decca, Chess, and United.