"I was just a country boy, glad to get some sounds on wax"
IT WASN'T unexpected; not like the sudden shock when a man is wiped out is his prime by ice on the wings, vomit in the throat, or a wayward bullet; but there was still a sense of irretrievable loss that came with the news of Howlin’ Wolf’s death.
He'd been ill for a long time now. Overweight and subject to heart attacks, he'd been in and out of hospital since the late sixties and more or less inactive for the last couple of years. Now the news reports tell us it was cancer that finally tipped the scales. It still didn't make it any easier to accept.
More than any other surviving blues singer The Wolf epitomised the uncertain role of his music in today's world. Too forceful a personality and too vital a talent to be written off as an historical curio; far too inflexible to adapt to a changing society; just like the blues, he was in a limbo where all you can do is do what you must.
He didn't start recording until that period in life when many men are past their best, and he reached his own peak long after it was relevant, bringing with him sounds and emotions from an age that most of his contemporaries had left behind. Out of time and rejected by the people of whom he was fiercely proud; startlingly unique yet more a son of heritage than those who sought to find their "roots", the best of his records and live performances were – in fact are – souvenirs that time will elevate to their rightful place in black music's history.
A GREAT BEAR of a man, 6 ft. 3 in. and nearly 300 lbs before his illness, he sang like he breakfasted on broken glass washed down with gasoline, yet for all that it was a subtle voice. Not just a raucous shout but an instrument of sorrow, humour, tragedy, joyful boasting... the whole gamut of emotions were at Wolf's command, and it's not generally recognised that he took great pains to tell it like he wanted.
On stage he could be just as industrious, for he liked to give a show, acting out the message of his songs. He'd roll those great hips and stomp up and down, far more involved in his performance than the average bluesmen who seemed resigned to playing a part for posterity. On good nights he was positively athletic, as witnessed by American writer Peter Guralnick:
"He leapt in the air, he rolled on the floor, he cradled the microphone between his legs, he pounded at the posts with a frightening ferocity, and at the end of the evening he lay on his back roaring into the mike and struggling to get to his feet again and again. Each time he would raise himself to a sitting position and then fall back and the whole stage would shudder, until at last he leapt up, towered over us in the front row and announced 'The Wolf Don't Jive'."
All in all he was a giant among mediocrity and we shan't experience his like again.
BORN Chester Arthur Burnett in West Point near Aberdeen, Mississippi on June 10th, 1910, he was raised on a plantation, and, apart from his stint in the army, stayed working the farms in Mississippi and Arkansas until his father's death in the late forties.
During this time he entertained at the juke joints, on the plantations, and occasionally on city streets "working all night for a fish sandwich, and glad to get it too." Playing the guitar and harmonica he'd been given in his teens (neither of which he ever really mastered) he picked up the songs of men like Charlie Patton (‘Saddle My Pony’, ‘Spoonful’, ‘Red Rooster’) and Tommy Johnson (‘I Asked For Water’), two pre-war blues giants who employed many of the mannerisms adopted by Wolf. He also hung around with Sonny Boy Williamson for a while.
In 1948 he settled in West Memphis, put together a band that included Willie Johnson (guitar) and Willie Steel (drums), and got himself a 30 minute singing-cum-advertising spot on radio station KWEM. As with Sonny Boy, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, the broadcasts boosted his reputation and he was quickly snapped up by roving talent scout Ike Turner (now of "... and Tina" fame) who took him to Sam Phillips' studios in Memphis proper (now of "Elvis was here" fame).
This was just before Phillips launched his legendary Sun label, when he was still leasing recordings to companies like Chess in Chicago, who got the first Wolf track ‘Saddle My Pony’. At the same time Turner was busily sending masters to R.P.M. in Los Angeles, so they too issued a bunch of early Wolf sides circa 1950. The man himself was not consulted. "I didn't know what was happening. I was just a country boy, glad to get some sounds on wax."
CHESS finally settled the matter by signing him direct, and after one more session in Memphis in 1951, he moved to Chicago where he was based for the rest of his life and where he recorded all his greatest sides. The Memphis sessions were already extraordinary, particularly the eerie ‘Moanin' At Midnight’ and a re-worked traditional blues ‘How Many More Years’, but it was in Chicago that he really came into his own. With a new band, including Hubert Sumlin (guitar) and Hosea Lee Kennard, then later Henry Gray (piano), he began creating some of the most striking music to ever emerge from that city, mainly recorded in two distinct periods, 1954-56 and 1960-62.
The earlier sessions produced most of the tracks that were later used on his first L.P., notably ‘Evil’, ‘44’, ‘I Asked For Water’; and ‘I Have A Little Girl’ which was included on the More Real Folk Blues album. But it was ‘Smokestack Lightning’ that became the legend. A truly magnificent example of the man's forceful imagery, it gave him one of his only three hits in March 1956, and unbelievably nudged our own charts nearly a decade later, during the so-called R&B boom.
Throughout the second half of the fifties he continued to record quite prolifically, but only ‘Mr. Airplane Man’, ‘The Natches Burning’, and ‘Tell Me’ equalled the power of the early tracks, preceding what were to become the most dynamic two years of his career. The six consecutive releases at the beginning of the sixties are still among the finest Chicago R&B on record. Too late to be successful at home, they were however a vital education for European fans and budding stars who even now are re-working the sounds of ‘Spoonful’, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’/’Back Door Man’, ‘Down In The Bottom’, ‘The Red Rooster’, ‘You'll Be Mine’/’Goin' Down Slow’, and ‘Just Like I Treat You’/’I Ain't Superstitious’. Nearly all these tracks made up his second L.P., which needs to be reissued immediately.
In an attempt to bring him up to date, Chess started recording him with younger bluesman like guitarist Buddy Guy (which was O.K.), and tried to find more commercial material augmented by heavier production using sax (which wasn't). A victim of confused ideas, his recordings slowly deteriorated despite occasional flashes of brilliance like ‘Trail Dragger’ and ‘Killing Floor’. Rock bottom was reached in 1969 when the company did the real dirt on him in the grotesque form of a "psychedelic" album which Wolf dismissed as "birdshit".
Presumably realising the error of their ways, in the last few years they recorded him more sympathetically, and having just about survived the mandatory superstar London sessions, he was heard to good advantage on albums like Live And Cookin' and The Back Door Man.
By far the best picture of Wolf was given by Peter Guralnick in his book Portraits In Blues and Rock 'n' Roll (Dutton, 1971) from which I've extracted the quotes used here. As far as I know, all of Wolf's records are currently deleted, but with All Platinum recently acquiring the Chess catalogue we can only hope that they'll soon put out a worthwhile memorial set, PLEASE NOT in electronically reprocessed stereo. It's only fitting that someone should treat him right now he's gone: He certainly didn't get much respect when he needed it. As he once confided to Guralnick, "I wished it could have been better. Somehow or other though, it just wasn't for me to have the breaks other people have."
© Cliff White, 1976