"Always stop at the top"
-- Howlin' Wolf's advice to Eric Clapton on how to play the blues.
100 years ago today Chester Arthur Burnett aka Howlin' Wolf was born. Right now I'm listening to J. Monque D DJ a tribute to the Wolf on WWOZ. I've also been working on an article about the Black Keys for Relix magazine. It's really difficult to describe Patrick Carney's drum sound but when I heard "Moanin' at Midnight" again it clicked. It's the same kind of attack. It's blues, and it's old school, but it's not retro. That's because it's in the moment, just as these Howlin' Wolf tracks sound contemporary. Check that, they sound eternal, outside of time, in a continuum of their own design. I'm realizing that's the only kind of music I really care about. "I'm Ready."
Nice piece by Jeff Johnson on Wolf in the Chicago Sun Times:
BY JEFF JOHNSON Staff Reporter
He looked like a member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, sang in a voice so gritty it could cut diamonds and worked Chicago’s blues stages with the passion of a man grappling for possession of his soul.
Yes, the man born Chester Arthur Burnett — after our 21st president — 100 years ago this Thursday outside West Point, Miss., and known to the world as Howlin’ Wolf left an impression bigger than his size 16 extra-wides. Friends, family and his musicians still speak of his dominating physical presence, but ask the about the Wolf and they’ll first mention his complex personality, his street smarts and his dedication to his craft.
This week, when the 27th annual Chicago Blues Festival takes over Grant Park for three days starting Friday, the Wolf will be ubiquitous. And that’s likely the way he would have wanted it.
“I remember my mom [Lillie] telling me, ‘There aren’t a lot of things he needed or wanted, but one thing he asked: ‘Don’t forget me,’” his daughter Bettye Kelly recalled during a recent “Speaking of the Blues” program at the Harold Washington Library Center devoted to the 1991 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who died in 1976.
Or, as his longtime guitarist Jody Williams puts it, “The Wolf deserves to be remembered.”
* * *
Howlin’ Wolf’s story is the Chicago blues in microcosm, the ultimate triumph of the African-American dirt farmer transplanted to the postwar industrial North. Wolf wasn’t among the early wave of bluesmen to join the Great Migration. As a teenager, he learned the blues at the feet of the great Delta blues guitarist Charley Patton, and built a recording and performing career while DJ’ing at KWEM-AM in West Memphis, Ark.
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips couldn’t believe what he heard when Wolf cut several sides at his studio in Memphis, Tenn., for the Bihari brothers’ Modern label and Chicago’s Chess Records. “I can say to this day there is nobody I loved recording more,” Phillips told Wolf’s biographers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, who penned Moanin’ at Midnight in 2004. This from the man who recorded Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a host of other greats.
By September 1951, both Modern and Chess thought they had “exclusive” deals with the Wolf, and Leonard and Phil Chess eventually prevailed. Wolf was off to Chicago.
“I’m the only one who drove out of the South like a gentleman,” Wolf later told Chicago music producer and blues historian Dick Shurman.
And that scene in 2008’s highly fanciful Chess biopic “Cadillac Records” where Wolf pulls up to the offices in an old pickup truck? That was probably a two-tone DeSoto, his daughters say. Still, the movie presented Wolf in a favorable light when it came to seeing through the plantation mentality he walked away from down South. Instead of taking Chess’ flashy Cadillacs in payment for royalties, Wolf insisted on keeping correct books.
“That’s how they did business with the artists, but my dad did not play that,” daughter Barbra Marks explained. “Our dad was depicted very well,” including a scene when he peeled bills from his bankroll to pay for harmonica superstar Little Walter Jacobs’ burial.
Williams took exception to Wolf’s portrayal as “a thug” in the movie. But another guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who probably had the most longevity of any member of Wolf’s bands, said his boss was not above ruling by intimidation when the situation warranted. Wolf’s ballyhooed feud with fellow Chicago blues great Muddy Waters, which started from the time Wolf began taking club dates from the more established Waters, came to a head when Wolf fired Sumlin onstage and Waters quickly hired him. “The Wolf scared me so bad over this,” Sumlin recalled in a phone interview from his home in northern New Jersey.
Returning from a monthlong tour with Waters’ band, Sumlin hit Chicago feeling tired, sick and alienated by Muddy’s comparatively lax rules. “I called Wolf from a pay phone in front of the 708 Club. Muddy was with me, and he was drunk, man. Wolf came on in the door, pointed his finger at Muddy and told him , ‘Hey, man, I come to get my son.’ Muddy started to cry [out of fear he’d angered Wolf]. To tell you the truth, that made me feel a little important [having the blues giants fighting over him]. I learned a lot when I was with those guys.”
Sumlin admits the firing was warranted because he was “running over” the vocals with his heavy guitar picking.
“He said, ‘Don’t come back till you start using your fingers cause you’re a finger man, anyway.’ It didn’t take me long to learn. It made me a better player and a better musician. I had my tone, my sound, everything I needed.”
Now Sumlin regularly lands on lists of the greatest rock guitarists ever, and Eric Clapton cites him as one of his biggest influences. He owes it mostly to Wolf, he says.
* * *
Wolf left a great legend and an even greater musical legacy. Using his own band members and the finest Chess session men, he cranked out signature tunes such as “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Evil,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Killing Floor” and “Goin’ Down Slow.” Never a prolific songwriter, Wolf recorded many songs by blues poet laureate Willie Dixon, a Chess writer-arranger-producer who joined in on upright bass.
And while Muddy was top dog when Wolf arrived in Chicago, Wolf had the advantage of living in the South more recently. Thus when his devoted fans arrived in droves to Chicago, many feeling homesick, they showed up at clubs such as Silvio’s, the Zanzibar and the 708 Club to hear Wolf sing and play the sounds they knew best. He turned other blues fans into Wolf fanatics with his smoking-hot band and an animated stage presence that was said to have inspired James Brown and Little Richard.
In explaining his appeal, non-related namesake Peter Wolf, former J. Geils Band frontman, explained, “He was unique. He had a deep emotional impact, his style was totally recognizable as his own and he seemed to have a direct link to Charley Patton. I just found him to be like a great expressionist painter — unique and encompassing an amazing style. His performances were always unpredictable because he was always unpredictable. He got lost in the music and he always had a showmanship aspect to him, whereas Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker didn’t, although all three had a great intensity when they sang.”
Peter Wolf and Howlin’ Wolf, who both were singers, harmonica players and DJs, found themselves in Harvard Square after a late night, and when the Bostonian opted for an early breakfast, his Chicago visitor delayed them when he became engaged in an intense discussion with a group of Harvard students.
Shurman, too, found Wolf to have an uncanny native intelligence, given his lack of formal education. He arrived in Chicago barely able to read and write, and with some help from wife Lillie, he was eventually able to do the payroll for his band, deducting taxes and even offering health insurance.
“I always said Wolf had quite a bit of street smarts, but I didn’t look at him like I did B.B. King,” said Shurman, who theorizes that given the opportunity, King would have made a great U.S. representative to the United Nations.
Shurman gives the Wolf his due, citing his childhood of extreme poverty, when he was banished from his mother’s home, brought up by an abusive uncle who beat him with a strap and a possible nervous breakdown and electroshock therapy in the military. Shurman poses this interesting hypothetical: If you could do away with the spirit-crushing poverty of the period, knowing that you’d lose the great music produced as a result of these social ills, would you do it?
“From a humanitarian standpoint, you’d have to,” I replied.
“Yes, but as a music lover, think of what you’d be losing.”
Fortunately, we agreed, it’s not a choice we’re forced to make.