January 10, 2008

Something Else #2 - Howlin' Wolf

Bluesman Howlin' Wolf, one of the giants of 20th century American music, died 32 years ago today, January 10, 1976.

Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett in Mississippi in June 1910. As a young man, Wolf played harmonica and guitar and was influenced by both black (Charley Patton) and white (Jimmie Rodgers) musicians. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1948 to try his luck at a full-time music career. At age 40, he made his first recordings with Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Near the end of 1952, Wolf moved to Chicago, teamed up with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and became a star for Chess Records.

To get a sense of why Wolf was considered one of the most electrifying performers in blues history, here's Robert Palmer, from his book Deep Blues:
The MC announced Wolf, and the curtains opened to reveal his band pumping out a decidedly down-home shuffle. The rest of the bands on the show were playing jump and soul-influenced blues, but this was the hard stuff. Where was Wolf? Suddenly he sprang out onto the stage from the wings. He was a huge hulk of a man [6-4, 250+], but he advanced across the stage in sudden bursts of speed, his head pivoting from side to side, eyes huge and white, eyeballs rotating wildly. He seemed to be having an epileptic seizure, but no, he suddenly lunged for the microphone, blew a chorus of raw, heavily rhythmic harmonica, and began moaning. He had the hugest voice I have ever heard -- it seemed to fill the hall and get right inside your ears, and when he hummed and moaned in falsetto, every hair on your neck crackled with electricity. The thirty-minute set went by like an express train, with Wolf switching from harp to guitar (which he played while rolling around on his back and, at one point, doing somersaults) and then leaping up to prowl the lip of the stage. He was The Mighty Wolf, no doubt about it. Finally, an impatient signal from the wings let him know that his portion of the show was over. Defiantly, Wolf counted off a bone-crushing rocker, began singing rhythmically, feigned an exit, and suddenly made a flying leap for the curtain at the side of the stage. Holding the microphone under his beefy right arm and singing into it all the while, he began climbing up the curtain, going higher and higher until he was perched far above the stage, the thick curtain threatening to rip, the audience screaming with delight. Then he loosened his grip and, in a single easy motion, slid right back down the curtain, hit the stage, cut off the tune, and stalked away, to the most ecstatic cheers of the evening. He was then fifty-five years old.
Here are several clips of Wolf, from the same time period (mid-1960s):

How Many More Years



Fuckin' A! ... Also: see the man wearing the hat to the left of the sax player when Wolf starts singing at 1:09? It's legendary Delta bluesman Son House.

Here's Dust My Broom from the same gig; also Shake It For Me, I'll Be Back Someday and Smokestack Lightning.

MP3s:
Moanin' At Midnight (May 1951)
The Wolf Is At Your Door (December 1951)
I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) (July 1956)
Who's Been Talking (June 1957)
Howlin' For My Baby (Late 1959)
Hidden Charms (August 1963)
The best starting point for new Wolf fans would be His Best, a single CD released as part of Chess' 50th Anniversary Collection. Many of the same songs can be found on Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' In The Moonlight, which combines two albums (including the famous "rockin' chair" album) onto one CD.

Howlin' Wolf: The Chess Box (three discs) is an excellent career overview, while completists should track down The Complete Recordings 1951-1969, a 7-CD box released by the UK label Charly in 1993. A biography of Wolf -- Moanin' At Midnight by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman -- was published by 2004.

21 comments:

L-girl said...

Thanks for the tribute to this great musician and one of the original wild men of music.

I wish I could have seen him.

L-girl said...

I always chuckle to myself when I see the title "Moanin' At Midnight". I remember this detail from Palmer's book: in some record label's hopeless effort at sanitizing, it was also released under the title "Morning at Midnight".

Timmy Mac said...

It is so incredibly weird that you posted this TODAY. I got the 5-disc box set for Martin Scorsese's blues project for X-Mas. I'm not that well-versed, so it's been very educational.

Yesterday, I got to a couple Howlin' Wolf tracks and lost my mind. I listened to them over and over. I had it in my To-Do list today to find out more about the guy.

I fire up my computer, and here's this post waiting for me.

Think maybe the universe is trying to tell me something?

redsock said...

I had it in my To-Do list today to find out more about the guy.

Glad to help out!

Yesterday, I got to a couple Howlin' Wolf tracks and lost my mind.

A common reaction.

redsock said...

I wish I could have seen him.

What I would give for footage of the Palmer show!

Palmer doesn't ID, but the Wolf bio says it was on August 6, 1965 at a Memphis Blues Revue. Check out this lineup: John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Wolf!!!

The embedded clip gives a small peek at what a full show (with Wolf up and prowling about) must have been like.

"Morning at Midnight"

I think that was an attempt to record the same song for two different labels (or sell the same song to different record companies) at the same time.

redsock said...

If you like Wolf's raw style, check out the Hound Dog Taylor track on Disc 5 of that box!

Timmy Mac said...

Done and done, thanks to the magic of the iPod. DAYUM...you're right. This is good stuff.

redsock said...

Hmmm, what's with the shitty selections for the white people on Disc 5?

A popish tune from Stevie Ray Vaughan, later-day (i.e., bland) Bonnie Raitt, and pure corporate shite from the Fabulous Thunderbirds? Bah. Also poor choice of Dylan on Disc 4.

Still, the rest of it looks like a great gift. Find the stuff you like and follow those roads.

redsock said...

In my past life as a music critic, I wrote a bit about the blues. So if I can help out or point you towards anything, let me know.

The Blind Willie Johnson tune on Disc 1 is fantastic, but it's an instrumental. He had a voice as harsh as Wolf's. I was playing his stuff in the car last weekend on the way to work. (Led Zeppelin nicked Nobody's Fault But Mine and In My Time Of Dyin' from him.)

Timmy Mac said...

Well, thanks to the Black Keys, I just discovered Junior Kimbrough, which only makes me wonder how much other great music I missed along the way.

redsock said...

Junior Kimbrough!! Yeah!! We saw him and R.L. Burnside one night in New York 1993-ish. A group of people with the Fat Possum label.

What's the Black Keys?

Timmy Mac said...

Why, the Black Keys are these fellas right here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkp_EU_yqz0

redsock said...

Just those two guys? I'll bet they get compared to the White Stripes (who do several Son House songs (Death Letter, John the Revelator)) a lot.

It's cool these guys are so connected with Kimbrough. If I recall, his Sad Days, Lonely Nights CD is way better than his first one (which I recall sounded a little canned).

Have you seen the movie Deep Blues? The guy I quoted in the post, Robert Palmer, narrated that movie and produced the soundtrack album. He's also one of my favourite music writers.

redsock said...

Three Blind Willie Johnson songs:

If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down
and
Nobody's Fault But Mine
December 3, 1929, Dallas, TX (same day he recorded "Dark Was The Night")

I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge
December 5, 1929, Dallas, TX
with his wife singing background

Timmy Mac said...

You do realize that at this point, you've simply become an enabler, right? ;-)

My blues education is in its infancy. You know how these things go - you hear a guy, and that leads you to someone else, and that leads you to someone else, and so on. Dylan was my entry point and I've been working my way backwards and forwards since.

Pokerwolf said...

I discovered Art Tatum, thanks to the "Piano Blues" documentary (directed by Clint Eastwood!) from the Scorsese set.

Be sure to check out Muddy Waters, Professor Longhair, and Doctor John.

Redsock - Any blues recommendations you want to hand out, I'll take! Thanks!

Amy said...

Great stuff, Allan. I don't know a thing about the blues, but when I hear it, I always like it a lot. Thanks for sharing.

L-girl said...

"Morning at Midnight"

I think that was an attempt to record the same song for two different labels (or sell the same song to different record companies) at the same time.


Oh yeah, you're right. I remembered the title change, but not the reason.

Nice to see Junior Kimbrough talked about here!! Great stuff.

L-girl said...

My blues education is in its infancy. You know how these things go - you hear a guy, and that leads you to someone else, and that leads you to someone else, and so on. Dylan was my entry point and I've been working my way backwards and forwards since.

That's so cool - I'm sure all real music fans have the same experience in some form or another.

My point of entry to the blues was The Allman Brothers Fillmore East. I realized I was listening to so much rock that came from the blues - rocked-up blues - that I should find out what this thing called the blues really is. I bought a Muddy Waters album, and I've never been the same.

L-girl said...

Be sure to check out Muddy Waters, Professor Longhair, and Doctor John.

Having seen all these people live and having listened to their music for most of my life, I hope you will put a long pause between mentions of Muddy and Prof Longhair and our friend Dr. John.

I love Dr. John, and I can listen to his music for hours, but he is a generation of talent and originality removed from people like Muddy and Professor Longhair. Muddy and Professor Longhair helped reinvent whole genres of music. Dr. John is carrying on a tradition.

Muddy is a god to me, as Wolf is to Allan. It is one of the great joys of my life that I was able to see him perform a few times before he died.

thatdietcokegirl said...

i love 'smokestack lightning'. nice post RS :))