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Saga Blues: Ramblin' Bob

Robert Nighthawk

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Album Review

Depending on the perspective, Robert Nighthawk was either a minor major bluesman or a major minor one who never recorded enough to receive breakthrough attention in his own right. Label or genre anthologies have been the best bet for finding his cornerstone pieces, "Anna Lee" and "Sweet Black Angel," songs that provide an unusual roots link between the Muddy Waters and B.B. King branches of the Delta blues tree. Part of the profile problem is that he first recorded as Robert Lee McCoy doing acoustic, Delta-rooted blues accompanied by the first Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams in the late '30s. After dropping out of sight for roughly a decade, he resurfaced as Robert Nighthawk for a few sessions of a smooth brand of electric slide blues in the early Chess days, and then cut more jumping material for United in the early '50s. Ramblin' Bob combines all three phases, so it's a definitive collection by default, the single Nighthawk disc any comprehensive blues collection needs. The sound quality may not be pristine, since the early material is probably taken from 78s (a dead giveaway is the runoff groove sticking on "Friar's Point Blues"). The McCoy tracks are classic examples of pre-World War II Delta blues, with themes and images drawing from animal metaphors, going back down South, trains, and back-door-man action, and there's a healthy variety in the music. "Prowling Nighthawk" (the obvious source of his phase-two surname) is an excellent celebration of the rambling blues life, and "Take It Easy Baby" is springy and upbeat with very prominent harmonica. Williamson is completely integrated into the music, employing different harp sounds from the high registers on "Mamie Lee" to the rough-and-tumble, bass-heavy rhythm with (probably) Speckled Red on piano on "Every Day and Night." Sonny Boy chips in with answering vocals on "Next Door Neighbor" while Red's piano strides out, and though the guitar doesn't sound like it's in tune, the music still works. "Take It Easy" and "Ol' Mose" are almost ragtime tracks, suggesting that Nighthawk's unusual smoothness may spring from a suave vocal style that owes more to jazzy styling than rough blues shouting. That smoothness shows up on the electric Nighthawk sides, trio sessions with bass and piano that are his best-known tracks and classic examples of the early Chess sound. The clarity of the recorded sound is noticeably better and the shift from chordal guitar comps to single-string lines answering the vocals is obvious, but the United tracks are something else again. These are his first studio sessions with a drummer, and Jump Jackson on the skins and Roosevelt Sykes' piano dominate "Kansas City Blues" and "Take It Easy Baby." His slide guitar is more evident on "Crying Won't Help You" and "Feel So Bad," but Sykes takes the solo. Maybe that was the United way, because Curtis Jones is as prominent in the mix as Nighthawk on "Bricks in My Pillow," another example of bedrock Delta imagery. "You Missed a Good Man" looks back to the Chess era, while high-striding piano and Clifton James' tom-toms generate a momentum on "Maggie Campbell" not unlike Muddy's "Got My Mojo Workin'" would a few years later. The United tracks have their moments and flesh out the picture of his early recording, even lacking the historical value of having the RCA McCoy and Chess Nighthawk sides together. Finding a more definitive one-disc compilation of Robert Nighthawk music is almost certainly not going to happen, though, especially with Saga's uncanny ability to get Ramblin' Bob into stores in Europe for the budget price of six euros. That should make it a reasonably priced import, even with a weak dollar, and thus fairly mandatory for any serious blues collection.

Biography

Born: 30 November 1909 in Helena, AR

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s

Of all the pivotal figures in blues history, certainly one of the most important was Robert Nighthawk. He bridged the gap between Delta and Chicago blues effortlessly, taking his slide cues from Tampa Red and stamping them with a Mississippi edge learned first hand from his cousin, Houston Stackhouse. Though he recorded from the '30s into the early '40s under a variety of names — Robert Lee McCoy, Rambling Bob, Peetie's Boy — he finally took his lasting sobriquet of Robert Nighthawk from...
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