RAMBLING MAN: Nighthawk liked the road.
Robert Lee McCullom was born Nov. 1, 1909, in Helena. The Phillips County river port was a major player in the development of Mississippi Delta blues, and McCullom — better known as Robert Nighthawk — is considered one of the greatest and most influential slide guitar players ever.
“All my people played music,” the stoic Nighthawk noted in his only known recorded interview, from the 1960s, with guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
McCullom didn’t choose Robert Nighthawk as a performing name until 1949. By then, he had already long since established himself as a performer. He left home as a young teen, playing harmonica.
While in his early 20s, he started learning guitar from fellow Arkansan Houston Stackhouse. Nighthawk, Stackhouse and Nighthawk’s brother, Percy McCullom, briefly had a trio. In 1932, when he was 23, Nighthawk performed at the wedding reception for Muddy Waters. The party got so raucous the house came down — literally; the floor collapsed.
Nighthawk moved to St. Louis in 1935 and was among the first to make the blues pilgrimage to Chicago, later a standard practice. He recorded with Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1 and Big Joe Williams in the late ’30s.
Most northern migrants never came back to the Delta, but Nighthawk did. And it was often back to his hometown of Helena. While the name “King Biscuit” has survived in the public consciousness, Robert Nighthawk could be heard pitching Bright Star Flour on a program similar to King Biscuit Time on Helena’s KFFA radio in the early 1940s. The radio shows, and especially the incredible concentration of blues talent in Phillips County, would help influence generations of blues fans and players from the Delta region and around the world.
“I think blues will never die,” Nighthawk said. “There’s always, always been the blues and there always will be. You can always come up with something else, but when you wind up, you’ll wind up with the blues every time. It’s just something you can’t get rid of.”
In 1949, he finally settled on Robert Nighthawk as a stage name, after the name of his first record, issued 12 years earlier, called “Prowling Nighthawk.” His protege Muddy Waters brought Nighthawk to the attention of his label, Aristocrat, later known as Chess Records.
Although the Aristocrat recordings sold well, Nighthawk, in typical fashion, didn’t stick around. He seemed to enjoy life on the road over making records.
Nighthawk and fellow Helena native and slide guitarist CeDell Davis worked together in the clubs for about a decade beginning in the late 1950s. Some 20 years younger than Nighthawk, Davis achieved a measure of solo fame in the 1990s with a debut produced by Little Rock native Robert Palmer. In 2002, with Little Rock native Joe Cripps at the board, Davis recorded an album with members of rock bands such as R.E.M. and the Minus Five.
A mentor to many, Nighthawk’s talent and influence was always greater than his commercial impact. It didn’t help that he never stayed with one record company long, or that he recorded under different names including Robert Lee McCoy, Peetie’s Boy and Rambling Bob. Nighthawk did seem to relish life on the move.
Nighthawk died Nov. 5, 1967, of heart failure in his native Phillips County. Although he has been an influence on the major performers of the blues, we still know relatively little about him. Nighthawk apparently liked it that way.