First up is Robert Nighthawk, slide guitarist extraordinaire. Born Robert Lee McCollum, he started out as a harmonica player, but learned to play guitar from his cousin, Houston Stackhouse. He traveled through the South, beginning in the early 30's and played at Muddy Waters' first wedding reception. He and Stackhouse once accompanied Mississippi's Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers when Rodgers played at a Jackson, MS hotel (collecting $42 in tips, which Rodgers let them keep).
He eventually migrated to St. Louis and changed his name to Robert Lee McCoy (because he was wanted by the police for his part in a shooting). He recorded as McCoy for the Bluebird label in the mid 30's. After 1940, he took a break from recording and worked in Helena, AR at station KFFA doing a radio show sponsored by Bright Star Flour. He changed his name to Robert Nighthawk during this time and began merging bottleneck guitar with the new sounds of electric guitar.
Robert Nighthawk rates as one of the most influential slide guitarists of the electric blues era and played a major role in the development of other great slide guitarists like Earl Hooker, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters. He was also one of B. B. King's favorite guitarists and the King of the Blues recorded Nighthawk's "Sweet Little Angel" in 1955. Night Hawk passed away in 1967 and has been underappreciated by many blues fans mainly because of his lack of recordings. He rarely stayed in one place long and constantly moved between Chicago, St. Louis, and the Arkansas/Mississippi area.
In the early 60's, Mike Shea filmed a documentary on Maxwell Street, the famous market in Chicago that served as a stage for many of the Windy City's greatest blues musicians, who set up and played there every Sunday for tips. The movie was called And This Is Free and one of the performers captured on film was Robert Nighthawk. Here's a clip from the movie of Nighthawk performing "Cheating and Lying Blues," with John Lee Granderson on second guitar and Jimmy Collins on drums. Check out the amazing slide work.
This song and several others from the film were collected into an essential Robert Nighthawk album called Live on Maxwell Street - 1964. Another must-have Nighthawk album is Bricks In My Pillow, which collects his recordings for United Records from the early 50's.
I first started listening to the blues in the late 80's. One Saturday night/Sunday morning, while flipping channels, I stumbled onto a show on Public Television called The Lonesome Pine Special, which featured a lot of different styles of music over the years. Every once in a while they would feature a blues act and on this night, they had one of the best....Junior Wells. I managed to copy the show to VHS and watched it so many times over the years that it nearly fell apart. Imagine my surprise at finding this clip on YouTube of Wells performing "Trouble No More" from that same broadcast. Wells sounded great and had an exceptional band that night.
Watching that clip brought back lots of memories, good and bad. Good in that I remembered that Junior Wells and his music brought a lot of pleasure to me over the years. Bad in that I also remembered that during a six to eight month span in 1997 and 1998, the blues world lost Johnny Copeland, Fenton Robinson, Luther Allison, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Kimbrough, and Junior Wells. Can you imagine another music genre losing so many great artists in so short a span?
For blues beginners, a great place to start is by picking up a collection of songs by different artists. Most of the blues labels release anthologies of their acts on a fairly regular basis, usually focusing on an anniversary of some kind. In recent years, we've seen collections by labels like Delmark, Earwig, Ruf, Electro-Fi, and many others. Alligator Records also does anniversary collections every five years, but for me, and for many others between the mid 80's and early 90's, their Genuine Houserockin' Music series was indispensible.
Like the title indicated, it was wall-to-wall and back-to-back houserockin' music, plus it was available at a budget price, so I was a little more willing to check out an album on which I didn't know most of the artists. Volume 1 was the third or fourth blues album that I purchased back in the day. At the time, I had only heard of a few of the artists on Volume 1, like Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, and the trio of Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray. This was my first exposure, certainly not my last, to musicians like Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Hound Dog Taylor, and Son Seals.
The Seals song on Volume 1 was "Goin' Home (Where Women Got Meat On Their Bones)," and I still remember the feeling I had when I first heard his raw vocals and that searing guitar that sounded like it could slice through metal. I hit rewind two or three times to take it all in again. I was hooked.
The first Son Seals set I was able to find in the store was Live and Burning, which, to me, is one of the best live Chicago blues collections of all time. It was the first live recording I'd ever heard where I wished that I could have been there to see it in person. In fact, his first three discs (The Son Seals Blues Band, Midnight Son, and Live and Burning) rank with the best blues recordings of the 1970's.
Sometime during the early 90's, I wasn't able to sleep one night, so I got up and turned on the TV. While flipping channels, I stopped on WGN, Chicago's big cable station. It was probably three or four o'clock in the morning and after the requisite five-minute block of commercials from Sister Cleo and Thigh Master went off, the program came back on. It was a hour-long show on the Chicago blues scene, and guess who was playing? Son Seals.....that's who. I actually found the performance from that show on YouTube, so here's Son Seals playing "Arkansas Woman."
Seals continued to play his fiery brand of Albert King-influenced blues (he played drums for King on King's classic Live Wire/Blues Power album from the 60's and got his start in music drumming for Robert Nighthawk) for another decade. He survived losing a leg to diabetes and being shot by his wife, but eventually succumbed to complications from diabetes in 2004. There's a great documentary DVD out about Son Seals called Journey Through The Blues: The Son Seals Story that even has a few live performances on it.
So to make a long story short (probably too late for that), if you're just starting out listening to the blues, check out the Various Artists section of your local record store or your favorite online shopping site. You'll find some real gems for a small amount of cash if you look hard enough.
Let's travel a little bit for our last clip today, across the Atlantic. I met Tim Lothar via the internet eight or ten years ago on a message board. He was a drummer for the Danish band, Lightnin' Moe. We got into a discussion about legendary drummer Fred Below and I sent him a Below interview I had from an old copy of Living Blues. He asked me to check the English in their liner notes for their upcoming disc. I did so, and he was nice enough to include me in the Thank You section of the notes upon release. Several years ago, he decided to learn to play guitar and embarked on a solo career. He apparently is a quick study because he has become an amazing guitarist in a very short time and specializes in acoustic pre-war Mississippi delta blues. In 2008, he was chosen Danish Blues Artist of the Year and his disc, In It For The Ride, won Danish Blues Album of the Year. He has a great new release with Danish harmonica ace Peter Nande called Two For The Road. Check out this clip of Tim playing an old Leadbelly song during a gig in Germany. Looks like the blues is doing just fine overseas.