For the week of 2/18/2013…

“Maxwell Street Medley” by Robert Nighthawk & His Flames of Rhythm

Robert Nighthawk (real name Robert McCullum) was a legendary bluesman who rambled from his hometown of Helena, Arkansas (a blues hotspot near the Mississippi Delta) to Memphis, St. Louis, and the greatest blues hub of them all, Chicago — and then back — over the course of his life, recording sporadically from the 1930s until his death in 1967.  Variously described by other bluesmen as “just a real smooth operator” and a slide guitarist “so good he almost made me cry,” Nighthawk was a peer of Muddy Waters’ (who he’d known before ever learning the guitar) who played with nearly the gamut of the day’s blues icons, from Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams to John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon.  But unlike Muddy, for example, Nighthawk never dug in and focused on his recording career long enough to achieve the kind of national fame he might have been capable of; he seemed happy instead to settle for regional fame in Arkansas and the Delta.  His nomadic lifestyle — skipping about from city to city, playing clubs and radio stations all over, occasionally recording a bunch of sides under a variety of pseudonyms — might also be attributable to his fear that his involvement in a fatal shooting in Louisiana in the ’30s would land him in jail.  (He also had a bad habit of “forgetting” to pay his band, which for a time in the ’40s backed him on a radio program in Helena sponsored by Bright Star Flour, and included such rising stars as Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, and Ike Turner…yes, that Ike Turner.)  In any case, he never did make it big, although he was certainly influential and figured prominently in the history of the Chicago blues.

One of the places where Nighthawk liked to play was the open-air Maxwell Street Market in Chicago, a renowned blues hotspot, and in 1964, during one of the last times the Arkansan drifted back up to Chicago, a producer named Norman Dayron recorded one of his performances at the market.  The result was Live on Maxwell Street, 1964, which is not only the only recording of Nighthawk’s live performances, but also apparently the only LP released under his name during his lifetime.  While the music comes through just fine on the recording, the atmosphere of the street performance is also captured, from cars driving by to the shouts of the audience.  Backed by rhythm guitarist Johnny Young and drummer Robert Whitehead — billed as the “Flames of Rhythm,” although their sturdy rhythm section is more of a slow burn than anything — Nighthawk turns in a sharp performance on what is regarded as one of the finest live blues albums ever.  The centerpiece of the record is probably the so-called “Maxwell Street Medley,” which, in addition to featuring some masterful slide guitar work, seamlessly combines Nighthawk’s two big hit songs from about 15 years earlier, “Anna Lee” and “Sweet Black Angel.”  The latter, a blues standard which in the late ’50s had been popularized even further by B.B. King, ends in one of those great blues punchlines:  “Asked my angel for a nickel, and she give me a ten-dollar bill/Told her I want a small drink of liquor, and she poured me a whole whiskey still.”

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