Until his disciple Earl Hooker came to prominence, it's unlikely any blues slide guitarist developed a cleaner, lighter, more melodic touch than Robert Nighthawk. He started out recording in the pre-war era as Robert Lee McCoy, but that wasn't his real name either. He was born Robert Lee McCollum (or McCullum) in Helena, Arkansas on November 30, 1909.
Robert got started playing guitar late, at approximately 21. His first instrument was harmonica before his cousin, Houston Stackhouse, tutored him on guitar. But he was a fast learner. Bluebird signed him in 1937; he made his recording debut in Aurora, Illinois, on the same May day as Sonny Boy Williamson. By then, he'd changed his handle to McCoy after fleeing the south following a murky shooting incident that compelled him to take up residence in St. Louis.
One of McCoy's songs that day was called Prowling Night-Hawk, the inspiration for his most enduring alias. There were a couple more Bluebird dates and a 1940 Decca session as Peetie's Boy before the war upended recording activities. Nomadic Robert ended up back in Helena for a time, broadcasting his pungent blues over KFFA for Bright Star Flour in direct competition with the second Sonny Boy Williamson's 'King Biscuit Time' program.
Muddy Waters recommended his old friend Robert, who had by this time gone electric, to Leonard Chess. Nighthawk cut for him in late 1948 and again on July 12, 1949, when the day's itinerary included the chilling Black Angel Blues, pianist Ernest Lane and bassist Willie Dixon providing splendidly sparse accompaniment. The song harked back to 1930 and rough-edged classic blues singer Lucille Bogan (though Nighthawk was probably more familiar with fellow slide master Tampa Red’s 1934 version), and in 1956 B.B. King would score a solid R&B hit with it as Sweet Little Angel. Aristocrat—the label Leonard Chess was associated with prior to his own self-named firm—issued it as by The Nighthawks. The other side, Annie Lee Blues, made a chart dent—Robert's only fleeting moment in the national spotlight.