Monday, November 29, 2010

The Prowling Nighthawk: Robert Nighthawk, 30 November 1906- 5 November 1967

"Nighthawk" is one of the great names: Washington, DC DJ Bob Terry used it in the '60's when he had the best radio show in the city. John Hammond used it for his band the Screaming Nighthawks, a fixture in NY's Greenwich Village in 1965 or so, and a band that briefly boasted young Jimi Hendrix, fresh from the 101st Airborne, on lead guitar prior to his journeying to Great Britain.

My friend Mark Wenner has called his fine band the Nighthawks for over forty years now, and they're still going strong, I'm pleased to report.

But really, when the rubber hits the road, when push comes to shove, when it's time to fish or cut bait, there is only one original Nighthawk. Robert Nighthawk (or Night Hawk), the prowling Nighthawk, the legendary blues guitarist from Louisiana, one of the greats of Chicago blues and also an amazingly inventive slide guitar player with a beautiful touch.

Tomorrow, November 30th would have been Nighthawk's hundred- and- first birthday. Born in 1909, he died of heart failure (don't we all?) on November 5th, 1967, too early for the inevitable fame that accompanied white crossover adulation.
Robert McCullum with his brother on harmonica

His real name was Robert Lee McCullum and although he began as a harmonica player, he was a "go-to" guitarist as early as 1937, playing under the name Robert Lee McCoy, and recording for RCA with the first Sonny Boy, John Lee Williamson. By 1950 he was calling himself Robert Nighthawk, named after a popular recording of his.

Nighthawk in the '40's
Thankfully he left behind a good amount of recordings, all of them excellent. A protogee of veteran guitarist Houston Stackhouse, Nighthawk took Stack's style a little further and honed some of the rougher edges. He also had his disciples, Earl Hooker in particular, who played slide in the Nighthawk manner, that is, standard tuning, and mostly in the key of E.

While slide players like Elmore James re-tuned the guitar to an open tuning, like D, for instance, or, as in Muddy's case, open G, Nighthawk tended to play in the regular EADGBE tuning, dampening strings as  needed and fretting chords with his free fingers, alternating with his elegant single note runs.

Robert with Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis behind his classic "King Biscuit Enterainers" bass drum
Combined with his rich singing and perfect time, Nighthawk's performances stand out from many of his contemporaries and some rank right up there with Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.

Nighthawk's standard, Anna Lee, got recorded over and over and each version is a gem. His Maggie Campbell and Kansas City are must- haves for any aspiring blues musician. The recordings that he made with Big Walter Horton in 1964 for the Swedish aficionados, released under the name An Offer You Can't Refuse, are a virtual Chicago blues guitar textbook: clean, simple, unassuming and perfect.

You may want to check his recordings out here, but if I may, let me recommend a few for you.

1. Bricks in My Pillow (Delmark)- Nighthawk's singles on United and States- definitive!
2. Masters of Modern Blues (Testament) - Half Nighthawk, the other Houston Stackhouse. Not only do you get to compare both men, but Peck Curtis' drumming alone is worth the price of the recordings.
3. Live on Maxwell Street, 1964 (Bullseye)- amazing recordings done as part of a film documentery.
4. Bluebird Recordings 1937- 1938 (RCA) - the great early stuff with John Lee Williamson on harmonica and Big Joe Williams on guitar, not to mention virtuosic mandolin from Yank Rachell. Excellent sound.
5. The Original Sonny Boy Williamson, volume 1 (JSP?- not sure)- a very inexpensive 4- disc set of the Bluebird recordings that include a lot of great back- up from Nighthawk (as Robert Lee McCoy). Must have anyway because of Sonny Boy.
6. I Blueskvarter• Chicago, 1964, volume 1 (Jefferson, import) - this complilation has the speed- corrected, beautifully mastered Big Walter/ Nighthawk recordings. From the same session released earlier as An Offer You Can't Refuse.

All of the above are available on Amazon as well as Frank Scott's Roots and Rhythm site,  a wonderful resource for blues and roots music based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Congress of Freaks, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1924

Once a year, from approximately 1924 through 1935, photographer Edward J. Kelty took a kind of yearbook photograph of the Congress of Freaks associated with the combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

This was taken for the 1924 season.

It's from a book called Step Right Up, Barnes and Noble, publishers, available on the interweb here, at

The book is a collection of Kelty's circus photographs, a genuine labor of love that, while not quite possessing the genius of Bellocq's Storyville Portraits, comes pretty close.

One thing the Kelty book doesn't do is properly identify the cast of the pictures. There is a list, published in 1927 of the stars of the Freak show, so perhaps I can shed some light on a varied cast of wonderful- looking people. These id's are not based on visual recognition,  just from written lists.

Front row, from left to right:
Ajax, the sword- swallower; unk, unk, seated: Schlitze, the pinhead (and star of Tod Browning's Freaks); unk; one of the Carlson Sisters; Major Mite, the smallest man on earth; Tom Ton; Slats, skeleton sheik; the other Carlson Sister; Jeannie Tomaini; Mlle. Cleo, snake charmer; Twisto, the human knot; and an unidentified trio of sax playing sisters.

Back row, from left to right:unk; Cliko, the African bushman; either Eko or Iko, one of the ambassadors from Mars; Koo Koo, the bird girl (also featured in the movie, Freaks); Baron Paucci, midget; unk; Jim Tarver,  giant; the Dancing Doll family of midgets (Freaks); again, either Eko or Iko; unk; and Ho Jo, the bear boy.

I remember going to a circus back in 1954 or so with Peter D'Albert and Robyn Ferrien, and there was still a Freak tent, probably one of the last. Of course we weren't allowed inside. My main memory though is of the Shriners and their little motorcycles. Back then I really wanted one of those bikes.

Now I just want a fez.

Times change.

(New information! Thanks to Rebecca Stith, we now know that the woman next to the Carlson sister is Violetta, the living shop window bust; and that the man next to Mlle. Cleo is Martin Emmerling, known as Laurello. Also, according to this website, that is not Ho Jo, but Lionel the lion-faced boy. The giant might actually be Jack Earle. He is definitely not Jim Tarver. - Bret)

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Dream About My Youth

R. Crumb, from the Head Comix poster that hung in Eric Hall's dorm room, St. Albans School, Washington, DC, 1967 (until someone made him take it down.) The beginning of the '60's for me.

Sometimes you'll see something that just resonates inside your skull, something you feel like you've been seeing on the edge of your life forever, something that speaks to your strangest dreams and those childhood memories you can't make sense of, like the cartoon with the angels' pillowfight that ends with Tom and Jerry (not the cat and mouse, but the older ones, from the Van Beuren Company) crawling under the train track  in the snowstorm, or the "Wanna Be A Member?" sequence from a Betty Boop cartoon.

That's what these two panels mean to me. A dream about my youth! (How prophetic!) What be this? A strange inscription on my hand!

These two panels pretty much sum up my own strange trip through the 'sixties, and several subsequent years, I'd say until maybe 1974 or thereabouts. By the time I left Ithaca, NY, for the Rhode Island School of Design in 1973, the '60's were definitely winding down for all of us.

The casualties, the deaths of dear friends like Guy Dorsey, Ben Clopton, Wells Kelly and Steve Hubert were still in the future, but not by much. All four deaths were related to the times in which they lived and, of course, they died much too soon.

Wells Kelly
Way too easy to experience the bittersweet emotion of  nostalgic longing when a song like "Dancing in the Moonlight", the unofficial theme song of Ithaca hippiedom circa 1969- 1973 comes on the radio, and while it's not the original by Sherman Kelly, Wells' brother, recorded by Boffalongo, but the pleasant- enough King Harvest version, I can still think back about a time so far away that sometimes I'm not so sure I didn't dream the whole thing.

Is this what the strange inscription means? Is this the content of my youthful dreams? I don't know. I can never quite remember. I think I know, but then again....

This one's for all my pals, and you know who and where you are. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Different War, Different Uniform, Otherwise...

From the Shorpy Site: Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, DC, 1918:

Aside from a smoking ban, little else has changed.

A couple of years ago, one of the physicians at Walter Reed started bringing some of his recovering patients down to the Blues Jam I run at the Zoo Bar here in Washington, DC. Some of the men (they were all men) were missing an arm, some a leg, and some were missing one of each.

They were a very cool bunch, genuinely happy to still be alive, and they all enjoyed the music, especially when their doctor sat in.

The surgeon was transferred and hopefully those men all went home, back to their loved ones, and began dealing with the profound changes in their lives as a result of their injuries in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

I miss them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Stuff of Dreams

From the film Hellzapoppin'.

That's Slim Gaillard on piano and guitar, Slam Stewart on bass, Rex Stewart on trumpet, Elmer Fane, clarinet, Jap Jones on trombone and C. C. Jonstone on those crazy drums.

Frankie Manning's great choreography features Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, with William Downes (uniform),  Frances "Mickey" Jones (maid), Norma Miller, Billy Ricker (chef's hat), Al Minns (white coat, black pants) and Willa Mae Ricker,  Ann Johnson (maid) and Frankie Mannin (overalls).

A dream-like moment from an otherwise undistinguished film.

A Video From My Hometown

Even though this may conform to numerous descriptions of the journey of the soul after death, it is actually a video I shot of the ride up 188 feet of pure escalator at the Dupont Circle North Metro stop.

This stop opened in January of 1977, but somehow the DC Metro still seems new and fascinating. Longtime L by L readers know I'm always on the lookout for signs of the future, and the DC Metro remains a constant reminder that the future can be realized.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Redskins

The other day I heard the Washington, DC, NFL Football franchise referred to as Dan Snyder's Redskins.

Not the Washington Redskins or the 'Skins, or any of the homegrown names the fans would bestow upon the team when Jack Kent Cooke owned it.

Dan Snyder's Redskins.

Okay, I realize that every sports franchise is owned by some billionaire or billionaires and that they are expected to earn a profit one way or another. And I also know that the players are paid ridiculous amounts of money to play, whether they have a "fighting dogs" mentality or enjoy molesting people like the guy who was married to Joey Heatherton. (Joey Heatherton is a woman's name, by the way.)

But it seems to me that the big magic trick here is to make the citizens of whatever town the team is from think that it's their team. Or, as in the case of the Cowboys, America's team. What a detestable appellation that is.

Here's the trick: a city, like Washington, DC, has a team it calls its own. It roots for that team through thick and thin. The city pulls together, rising and falling as one with each game, depending on victory or defeat. Doesn't matter though- the team unites the city demographics as nothing else can. Black and white have something to talk about. Rich and poor, male and female, Muslim and Jew- if they belong to the city, they are united in their love of their team.

When it is done masterfully, like the Saints in New Orleans, it can literally bring a city back from the very brink of disaster. It can revitalise a city or a whole state. It is, simply, one of the greatest magic tricks ever performed.

And it's performed every Sunday in the autumn and winter more or less flawlessly.

Except here in my hometown of Washington DC where it is performed so ineptly that the city can barely lay claim to its stupidly named football team, Dan Snyder's Redskins.

Here in Washington, the owner of the team sees fit to not even bother to perform the trick. He makes it as difficult as possible to attend home games if one's income falls below the million dollar mark. Tickets are in the hundreds- of- thousands- of- dollars range (well... close, I think) thereby preventing any riff- raff from witnessing his highly- paid players lose week after week.

How does he do it? That's easy- aside from an ability to make gobs of money in really unpleasant ways (he used to run a telemarketing company), he's a pathetic loser. He has no idea what he's doing or how to do it. He doesn't even know why he should do it. He is the Sammy Glick of football.

Thanks to Dan Snyder and his Redskins, my city has damn little to be proud of. We play host to a bunch a moronic politicians who are letting the country go to the dogs (and I know that's not fair to dogs), we have no representation in the federal government and little tax base here in the city. Institutions are drying up right and left.

Thank god for Ben's Chili Bowl. And Chuck Brown's Soul Searchers.

Culturally, we are a total washout, since there's virtually nowhere left in the city for artists to live and create, let alone show their art. We're overdeveloped, undermaintained, and  infra-structure starved.

Forget the Redskins, citizens of Washington! They don't belong to you- they're a billionaire's toy, played with human beings and named after one of the worst things you can call a Native American.

If you want to do something really wonderful that you can't do anywhere else, go to the National Gallery. It's free and you can see some of the greatest works of art in the history of humankind.

It's much better than paying $50,000 for a hot dog and watch some losers lose.

Remember this? Remember how great you felt? 
John Riggins of the Washington Redskins. What happened to that team?

Rick Griffin

 Rick Griffin died in a motorcycle accident in 1991. He was 47 years old. His work as a graphic artist, especially his San Francisco- based poster work for the Family Dog, the Avalon and the Fillmore concert venues, had set a standard in the music industry. He designed both Rolling Stone Magazine logos, and, along with Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelly and Victor Moscoso created the look of the psychedelia through his posters, comix and magazine work.

Unusual for the times, Rick was a born- again Christian who had lost an eye in a car accident in 1970, and credited God with his survival. He surfed, rode a Harley, and raised a family, all the while working on his visionary designs.

His early work was published in Surf Magazine, and his first major band poster was done for the Family Dog and featured the Charlatans, one of the earliest acts to emerge from the burgeoning San Francisco scene.

Possibly his most visible work was done for the Grateful Dead, a group that never sounded nearly as good as Rick's vision of them. In fact, few of the groups that Rick advertised have survived their posters. It doesn't really matter though- the art wasn't really about the groups: it was about the era.

The Charlatans' poster. Dan Hicks (second from left) was the group's drummer.

Mickey, Donald, and the eyeball cavort in a George Herriman- inspired landscape.

Check out "Johnny Hammond and his Screaming Nighthawks", with personnel that later became The Band.

A little tribute to Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and Will Elder featuring Wood's Little Orphan Annie parody along side Elder's send- up of "Gasoline Alley". Rounding out the cast of cultural icons is the Quaker Oats Man transplanted like Ray Milland and Rosey Grier onto Popeye's body and Mr. Kool-Aid. Plus some of Griffin's fruit- label- influenced graphics.

Fearless Fosdick, Al Capp's "Dick Tracy" parody, and the Quaker Oats Man again.

What a show, except, of course, for pretentious- would- be- British- bluesman John Mayall.

A beautiful example of Rick's religious work, featuring his flawless painting technique.
Featuring Ben Gay trademark Peter Pain. Griffin must have been familiar with the Moody Blues' music.
A Griffin cover featuring the first Rolling Stone logo, designed by Rick