Muddy Waters’ whinnying slide guitar is one of the most distinctive sounds in blues. But the man who inspired young Muddy to first slip a bottleneck over his finger and apply it to his strings was Robert Nighthawk, a fellow denizen of the Delta who was playing fish fries and rent parties before Muddy owned his first guitar.

Nighthawk, who was born Robert Lee McCollum on November 30, 1909 and died November 5, 1967, is one of the more mysterious figures in blues, revered for his impeccable, inventive slide prowess.

The aura of mystery surrounding Nighthawk is due to the paucity of his recordings and his preference for an itinerant lifestyle. He never settled in an African-American music biz city like Chicago, Memphis, or St. Louis for long. Nonetheless, he left behind a shallow but enduring well of classics: “Bricks in My Pillow,” “Nighthawk Boogie,” “Anna Lee” (which Elmore James adopted), “Cheating and Lying Blues” (which Pat Hare adapted as “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby”) and “Sweet Black Angel,” still a staple of B.B. King’s concerts.

The molasses-voiced slide master did record for the Chess, Decca and Testament labels. The best CDs available are Masters of Modern Blues, which teams Nighthawk with his Delta mentor Houston Stackhouse, Bricks in My Pillow, and Live on Maxwell Street 1964, the latter of which is the most typical representation of Nighthawk’s art. Since he was a loner and a traveler, he had few connections with club owners and played most of his gigs on sidewalks for tips.

For a look at Nighthawk in peak form, watch this 1964 video of him offering up “Cheating and Lying Blues”  in Chicago’s now-gone Maxwell Street market – once a nucleus of the city’s African-American community and a Mecca for blue players. His graceful, emotionally charged solo, played with a tight-fitting slide on his pinkie, is the tune’s highlight.

Muddy Waters told blues historian Jim O’Neal that he knew Nighthawk before “I could pick nary a note on the guitar.” And it was Nighthawk who inspired Waters to play slide, since Nighthawk was both a friend and a regular at the juke joints and parties Waters frequented around Helena, Ark., (Nighthawk’s birthplace) and Friar’s Point, Clarksdale, Rosedale, Duncan and Hillhouse, Miss. Nighthawk actually played Waters’ first wedding, where, as legend has it, the floor collapsed from the party’s frenzied dancing.

Nighthawk himself learned the basics of guitar from fellow Arkansan Stackhouse, who he met in 1926. Stackhouse taught Nighthawk tunes by Tommy Johnson like “Big Fat Mama,” “Big Road Blues” and “Cool Water Blues,” which stayed in Nighthawk’s repertoire. But his slide prowess likely came from brief associations with Robert Johnson and possibly Tampa Red, and plenty of playing with Stackhouse and relatively unknown Delta guitarist Eugene Powell, who used a jackknife as a slide in their house-party-fueling guitar trio.

Nighthawk left the Delta after a shooting incident – the details are unclear – in the mid-1930s. He headed for St. Louis and then, in 1940, to Chicago. He joined Sonny Boy Williamson’s band and cut some sides of his own, including “Prowling Nighthawk,” which – along with his penchant for high tailing when the mood hit - gave him his nickname.

Along with Muddy, guitarists Elmore James – whose name is synonymous with raw blues slide – and Earl Hooker fell under the spell of Nighthawk’s style. Muddy paid Nighthawk back in 1948 when he took him to the Chess Brothers, who released Nighthawk’s “Sweet Black Angel” and “Anna Lee” as a single. If not for his rambling ways Nighthawk might have recorded more. Often when a label was ready to work with him, he’d already hit the road.

Hard living took its toll, and by the end of his life in 1967 congestive heart failure had weakened Nighthawk to the point where he could barely play. Until recently his son, the drummer and guitarist Sam Carr (born Samuel Lee McCollum), carried on Robert Nighthawk’s legacy in his father’s old stomping grounds around the Delta and occasionally on tours to Europe and Japan.

Carr has recorded solo albums, including 2004’s Down in the Delta, and is best known for his longtime partnership with harmonica player and keyboardist Frank Frost and his membership in the Jelly Roll Kings with Frost and guitarist Big Jack Johnson. In 1979 the Jelly Roll Kings recorded the first album to definitively nail the modern electric juke blues sound: the essential Rockin’ the Juke Joint