Robert Nighthawk – Sweet Black Angel And More Chicago Blues
Jasmine Records – 2021
23 tracks; 67 minutes
Robert Nighthawk was born in 1909 in Helena, Arkansas and died in 1967, following a stroke. In his youth he encountered both Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson I and recorded under the name Rambling Bob in the 30’s and again, under the name Peetie Boy, in the early 40’s. He was also a busy session musician and his slide technique was a big influence on a new generation of musicians like Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker. This collection covers the years 1948 – 1952, sessions recorded solely in Chicago. All titles are attributed to Robert although several use familiar themes from traditional songs.
The earliest sessions from September 1948 and July 1949 have Robert’s vocal and guitar supported by Willie Dixon on bass and either Sunnyland Slim, Ernest Lane or Pinetop Perkins on piano. Robert had signed with Chess in 1948 and there are twelve tracks from those two sessions but, sadly, only three singles were issued, most of the unreleased tracks featuring female vocalist Ethel Mae Brown who was Robert’s girlfriend at the time. Ethel’s vocal range is a bit limited and there were a lot of female singers at the time, so competition was fierce; still, it must have been galling for her not to have any of her efforts released. From the first session “My Sweet Lovin’ Woman” eventually appeared on a Chess single credited to Robert Nighthawk, alongside “Return Mail Blues” from the 1949 session, the other two tracks being Ethel vocals, but definitely check out Robert’s subtle and understated playing on “Down The Line”.
The Aristocrat single pairing “(Sweet) Black Angel Blues”/”Anna Lee Blues” is remarkable, not least as “Angel” was the inspiration for BB King’s 1956 “Sweet Little Angel”; indeed, the lyrics of BB’s version are virtually identical to Robert’s original. “Anna Lee” will also sound very familiar, a song that Robert got from Tampa Red – these blues songs certainly get around! The third released single, again on Aristocrat, paired “Six Three 0” (plenty of slide here) and “Jackson Town Gal”, a slower tune with solid piano from Pinetop Perkins. Both these releases were credited to The Nighthawks.
Robert left Chess when it became obvious that Chess was going to put its weight behind Muddy’s career, rather than Robert’s. Fast forward to 1951 and we have a session for Robert Nighthawk and his Nighthawks (Robert on guitar and vocals, Bob Call or Roosevelt Sykes on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass and Jump Jackson on drums). With the addition of the drums the sound is bigger and two singles were released, this time on United. “Feel So Bad” is an adaptation of the Big Bill Broonzy tune of similar title and has some fine, relaxed piano work that is lauded by Robert. The other side was “Take It Easy Baby”, a real rocker with the whole band taking off. Robert’s version of “Kansas City Blues” is similar in style as the band sets a furious pace; the reverse side was a slow blues, “Crying Won’t Help You”, another song you will find familiar, not least from BB King’s interpretation. Unreleased from the session was the frantic instrumental “Nighthawk Boogie” which sounds pretty impressive to these ears!
The final session is from 1952 and personnel details are vague: Ransom Knowling again on bass, unknown drummer, Bob Call or possibly Curtis Jones on piano. Six tracks were laid down but just one single released, on State. “Maggie Campbell” is the fast-paced side, with lyrics that reference Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues”; the slow side is “The Moon Is Rising”, subtle slide work and laid-back piano work. The other four sides were unreleased though one will be very familiar, “Bricks In My Pillow”, probably the song for which Robert Nighthawk is best remembered! Strange that it was not released at the time, as it sounds absolutely fine. Go figure! The other unreleased tracks include another instrumental boogie and two slower songs with strong slide work.
Robert drifted from the spotlight but continued to play in Chicago where he was ‘rediscovered’ busking in 1963, leading to a short flurry of activity before his untimely death. Jasmine has done a good job in collecting these tracks for this release which is a good one for any blues fan who does not have any Robert Nighthawk in their collection.