ROBERT NIGHTHAWK: Live on Maxwell Street 1964
In the March 19, 2010 edition of Friday Blues Fix, Graham (as always) did an excellent job of describing the influence and mystery of the recording career of Robert Nighthawk and his seminal recording, Live on Maxwell Street 1964. Nighthawk was recorded playing live on Maxwell Street in Chicago as part of Mike Shea’s 1964 documentary about the famous West Side open air market and shopping district. This once thriving area also served as an Ellis Island for blues musicians looking to escape the Jim Crow south, immediately begin earning tips and audition for club owners looking to book talent. In his autobiography, Honeyboy Edwards describes bluesmen in the rural south talking about Maxwell Street as if it were the Promised Land. “Musicians came to Chicago from everywhere just to play on Maxwell Street….They could make a living there.” It was also a place where veterans of the blues music scene like Nighthawk, could go to see and be seen by their friends and fellow musicians. Shea’s documentary “And this is free” is a time capsule of one of the most important places and periods in American music. Nighthawk’s contribution to the film was later released as Live on Maxwell Street 1964 and it perfectly combines exactly what one looks for in a live blues recording: Precise yet raw and energetic playing spurred on by a raucous crowd and expertly recorded and mixed so every sound can be clearly heard. The laughter, chatter and even traffic in the street actually add to this timeless recording of Delta meets Chicago blues. Quite simply, it’s one of the best and most important blues recordings of all time.
Born in Helena, Arkansas in 1909, Robert Lee McCollum was one of the most important innovators of electric blues and deserved a rich and well-recorded career. Due both to chance and choice, he didn’t enjoy the monetary success and recording catalogue of his contemporaries, but he influenced his and future generations with his playing technique. A priceless interview with Nighthawk is included with the Maxwell Street recording, as it reflects his disinterest in achieving the accolades attained by his contemporaries. A young Mike Bloomfield, who later achieved fame as a session man for Bob Dylan, guitarist with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and in his own solo career is in obvious awe of Nighthawk as he questions him about his background and technique. Nighthawk is polite, but while others would have seized the opportunity for self-promotion, he’s reserved and rather unwilling to discuss himself, his influences or slide technique. Nighthawk was a rambler, content to record sporadically and play his blues in small clubs and the market on Maxwell Street. In the interview with Bloomfield, he says that playing in the street is more demanding than playing in the clubs because the crowd has certain songs they want to hear and, “…You have more fun in the street.” In these sessions, Nighthawk is definitely up for the challenge and he’s also having lots of fun along the way. His slide is crystal clear, but the music is raw and at times reaches a frenzied pace. Hound Dog Taylor, another veteran of Maxwell Street, was an Elmore James devotee, but his wild, almost punk brand of blues had to have been influenced by seeing Nighthawk and his crew perform. At the same time, Nighthawk’s elegant light touch and innovative slide playing while in standard tuning (allowing him to switch between slide and fretted playing) can be heard in Earl Hooker’s critically acclaimed work. Depending on the crowd and his mood, Nighthawk could expertly play in either style of blues and both were on display on Maxwell Street.
The recording begins with one of the greatest blues songs and performances of all time. Like Nighthawk, “Cheating and Lying Blues” is the real deal, a song about jealousy, betrayal, murder and madness. Nighthawk puts his own spin on the Dr. Clayton classic and his guitar solos in the song deftly transition between BB’s single string style and fluid Delta slide. Nighthawk’s declaration that he’d prefer to murder his woman and suffer the consequences of the penitentiary “than be worried out of my mind,” is as chilling as his slide playing. It’s the ultimate blues song and performance.
The pace then picks up with the frenzied “Juke Medley,” and once again backs down with the slow burning blues of “The Time Have Come.” Nighthawk cranks his band back up for “Honey Hush” and then slows his street crowd down once more for a tortured version of Little Junior Parker’s “I Need Your Love So Bad.” Nighthawk’s voice and slide wail for his woman to come back and combine for an amazing performance.
Nighthawk’s ability in the recording to transition between foot stomping jams and aching slow groove numbers is phenomenal. The one constant in either style is Nighthawk’s unbelievable guitar playing. In a brief nod to his previous recording career, Nighthawk introduces “Anna Lee” and “Sweet Black Angel” saying, “This is my record I made…and I hope you like it.” He then performs them as a medley, squeezing every possible sound out of his slide. While BB turned it into “Sweet Little Angel” and achieved great success from his version (it remains a staple of his live show) the definitive rendition of the Tampa Red song is found here. The remaining songs continue to alternate between slow numbers and frantic blues boogie jams. The J B Lenoir blues warhorse “Mama Talk to Your Daughter” is given the Nighthawk guitar treatment, but he allows a young Big Mojo Elem (another under- appreciated Chicago blues legend) to take over the vocals on the song. A then relatively unknown Carey Bell in his first known recording adds harmonica on several of the tracks, but for many years there was much confusion and speculation concerning the other musicians on the recording. The original 1980 Rounder Records album and 1991 cd release incorrectly credits many of the musicians. Thankfully, the 1999 Rooster Blues Records’ three c.d. expanded release of the complete Maxwell Street recordings correctly identifies the players accompanying Nighthawk. Playing and singing contributions on the Maxwell Street sessions include Big John Wrencher, Jimmy Collins, Johnny Young, Little Arthur Duncan, John Lee Granderson, and Jimmy Brewer. Nighthawk and the other musicians perfectly complement each other, in particular the drumming which is appropriately restrained or thunderous when necessary.
The second reason the recording is so good is simple: The music is absolutely riveting and everything the blues is supposed to be. The songs include Nighthawk originals and blues standards about unrequited love, lust, choices, violence and a sweet angel who brings her man more money and whiskey than he ever wanted. The crowd and performers feed off each other’s energy (during one particular Nighthawk solo someone in the crowd is yelling for him to “Get it! Get it!”) resulting in the definitive recording of Delta meets electric Chicago blues.
The third reason the recording is so good is Robert Nighthawk at the height of his abilities. He was simply amazing and his influence on the blues and the electric guitar can’t be overstated. (His absence from Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time makes the entire endeavor suspect.) He was at the height of his powers on Maxwell Street in 1964 and this recording captures his extraordinary talent. Nighthawk was an enigma and in many ways a more mysterious figure than elusive blues icon Robert Johnson. Johnson (born two years after Nighthawk) may have sold his soul at the crossroads, but it was a dying Nighthawk who, according to his long time partner Houston Stackhouse, was refused treatment by a faith healer shortly before his passing in 1967. She allegedly told him that he was a sinner and she could have probably cured him, “if he’d a been a Christian.” In the 1964 Bloomfield interview, Nighthawk was asked if he’d ever considered playing gospel music. Nighthawk said that he “never really did go for it.” He goes on to say that for him it would “be like trying to work for two different men.” He then chuckles and says, ”I’m already working for the devil.”
So much of Robert Johnson’s legend is due to his reported disappearance from the blues scene only to return two years later with greatly improved abilities. Music veterans like Son House, Willie Brown and others were astonished at Johnson’s new technique and how much his playing had developed in such a short period of time. (It was House who later said Johnson must have sold his soul “to play like that.”) Nighthawk had a similar experience. When he returned to the Delta from Chicago in the early 1940s, people were stunned by the sound his guitar made. He had amplified his instrument and perfected his unique slide technique. Nighthawk’s son, Sam Carr, a blues legend in his own right, said of his father’s return to the Delta in 1941, “People would come and stare at his guitar when he was playing it, they just couldn’t figure it out.” Nighthawk was the first to combine the Delta roots style with the hard charging electric sound happening in Chicago and he brought his brand of blues back home to the Delta, influencing Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Earl Hooker and countless others.
Robert Johnson was only 27 when he died near Greenwood under mysterious circumstances, while Nighthawk passed away in 1967 at the age of 58. Johnson’s mystique, like other musicians who died young (e.g. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin and Cobain) certainly grew because we didn’t get to see his talent come to fruition. We’re left wondering what could have and would have been. Martin Scorsese said of Johnson, “He only existed in his records. He was pure legend.” He only had two recording sessions and only three photographs of Johnson are known to exist. The actual location of his grave still sparks controversy. If he’d lived as long as Nighthawk, would he have been found playing on Maxwell Street in his mid 50’s? Like Nighthawk, would he have shunned 1950’s Chicago and been content to just play rural juke joints and not seek recording success? Like Nighthawk, would he have acknowledged in his mid-50s that he was still “working for the devil”? Unlike Johnson we saw the life of Robert Nighthawk unfold, but we are still left with many unanswered questions and not nearly enough recordings of his incredible talent.
Nighthawk, much like his career choices, was unpredictable. Early on, he certainly had the desire for a successful recording career. Muddy Waters said that Nighthawk came to see him in the mid-1930s and told him, “He was going to Chicago to get a record… Finally, he split and the next time I heard he had a record out.” Between 1937 and 1940, Nighthawk recorded 22 sides for Bluebird, 4 for Decca and he appeared as a session musician on others. It was the busiest period of his recording career. At some point, Nighthawk lost the desire. His recording career was sporadic after that. His late-40s Aristocrat/Chess recordings were due in large part to the influence of his former pupil, Muddy Waters. Nighthawk was certainly willing to record, but he no longer seemed to have the desire for commercial success. His early decision to record for a time under different names (Robert Lee McCoy, Rambling Bob, Peetie’s Boy) before eventually settling on Robert Nighthawk certainly wasn’t conducive to recording success and he largely avoided Chicago during the prolific 1950s recording period. He was instead content to base himself in Helena and the Mississippi Delta playing juke joints and rambling from town to town. Was Nighthawk discouraged because of his initial lack of commercial success, causing him to largely turn his back on the studio? He made comments that he preferred the south to Chicago, but his decision sacrificed what could have been a lucrative career. For some reason, he returned to Chicago in 1964 and attended several recording sessions and worked the Southside clubs. Fortunately for us he also went back to Maxwell Street.
Nighthawk’s professional unpredictability carried over to his personal life. His son Sam Carr was 7 years old the first time he met Nighthawk. Carr describes that his father came by to see him and told him he was his father. Nighthawk then told his son, “I know you ain’t seen me or know nothing about me. I just want you to know I’m your daddy.” After insisting on disclosing their relationship, Nighthawk didn’t see his son again for four years. (Carr later established a relationship with Nighthawk and played in his band for many years.) During one period, he was reportedly married to two women at the same time. While living in the late-40s at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Nighthawk allegedly lived with his wife on one side of the hotel and kept his girlfriend down the hall!
Nighthawk was admired by his peers, although not necessarily trusted. He was more than willing to assist in the career development of many bluesmen, but Nighthawk apparently had to be watched closely when it came to money. He was allegedly notorious for leaving town without paying band members. Kansas City Red said that when Nighthawk would get paid, he had to look for him to get his share. “He’d get that money. I had to run him out through the corn fields.” In 1947 his longtime partner Houston Stackhouse split for a period due to Nighthawk not giving him his share of money. “Robert, he’d get a little tricky sometime. He’d shortchange. He had a slick kinda deal he was doin!” Nighthawk was unpredictable and would leave at the first opportunity to make more money. Pinetop Perkins recalls going to Cairo, Illinois, to play with him as part of his band. Nighthawk didn’t stay long. “I went to Cairo with Robert Nighthawk and, shoot, he left me there.” Big Joe Williams described that Nighthawk would be working in a town “and the next thing, he done put up and gone.” Nighthawk’s rambling lifestyle may be attributed to habits developed in the mid-30s in response to a brush with the law. Houston Stackhouse recalled that Nighthawk had to leave the Delta and go north for a period to avoid possible arrest. Stackhouse said “it was somethin’ about a pistol” that forced Nighthawk to never stay in one town too long. “That’s the reason he skipped cities” he concluded. Nighthawk never abandoned his early itinerant lifestyle, playing constant one night gigs throughout the south.
His peers described Nighthawk as serious and reserved, someone who never lost his cool. He was a difficult man to know, but he certainly had the respect of his fellow musicians, in particular Muddy Waters. It was Waters who arranged for Nighhawk’s late-1940s recording sessions and helped get him on the Chess label. Nighthawk had a long-standing relationship with Waters and even played the guitar at Muddy’s first wedding at Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale in 1932. According to blues lore, the dancing to Nighthawk’s music became so rowdy the dance floor actually collapsed!
Was Nighthawk bitter over the success achieved by Muddy and many of his fellow musicians who had graduated from Maxwell Street in 1964? He’s definitely taciturn, but doesn’t sound cynical in the Bloomfield interview. I believe he genuinely enjoyed playing Maxwell Street and was inspired by its inherent challenges. Nighthawk’s limited regional commercial success curiously appears to be more by choice than chance, but there’s no denying his incredible talent and influence. To once again quote Honeyboy Edwards, “You have to go where the blues leads you.” Nighthawk lived his life on his own terms and went where the blues directed him to go. It’s our good fortune that his journey included Maxwell Street .
NOTE: As I mentioned earlier, in 1999 Rooster Blues Records released an expanded set of the Maxwell Street recordings, which included a number of previously unreleased performances. Titled And This is Maxwell Street, the sound is superior to the initial release and Nighthawk appears on 22 of the 30 tracks. Mike Bloomfield actually joins in on some of the songs and the extended full interview with Nighthawk is included. As good as Live on Maxwell Street is, the Rooster 3 cd release is superior and definitely recommended!
Many thanks, Joe. That was some great information about a bluesman who deserves to be better known. Any time I hear Earl Hooker or Muddy Waters playing slide on a recording, I think of Robert Nighthawk, who was a huge influence on them and so many others. There are some other essential recordings of Nighthawk out there, including Bricks In My Pillow, which collects some of his early 50's recordings for United Records, and Down Home Slide, an anthology that features several previously unissued recordings of Nighthawk from the 60's, some of which include Little Walter on harmonica. However, the Maxwell Street recordings are the place to begin.