June 10, 2010

The Mighty Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett -- better known as bluesman Howlin' Wolf -- was born in White Station, Mississippi, 100 years ago today.Wolf did not consider a musical career until he was nearly 40. Sam Phillips, the man who first recorded Elvis Presley, heard Wolf's radio show on KWEM in West Memphis.
"When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' Then Wolf came over to the studio, and he was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I've ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester was one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and, I tell you, the greatest show you could see to this day would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what it would be worth on film to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang.
We do have film of Wolf in action -- and it is mesmerizing. Wolf was huge, at times close to 300 pounds; his head was as large as a cinder block. And his voice -- brutish, menacing, and loud -- was one of the musical wonders of the 20th century. And yet Wolf, an extremely guarded man off-stage, also sang openly about his insecurities (such as in the studio version of "Don't Laugh At Me": "You got fine clothes, that's why you laugh at me / I'm not good lookin' baby and I know I didn't make myself"), exposing a vulnerability that you never heard from other blues musicians. He was a true showman, giving maximum entertainment while often simultaneously scaring the shit out the audience.

Robert Palmer, in his book Deep Blues, describes Wolf's early sound:
Wolf was moaning and screaming ... blowing unreconstructed country blues harmonica, [and] his band featured heavily amplified single-string lead guitar by Willie Johnson and Destruction's rippling, jazz-influenced piano. ... Wolf and his group could sound exceptionally down-home .. and they could swing. ... But most of the time, Wolf strutted and howled, Willie Steel bashed relentlessly, and Willie Johnson, his amp turned up until his tone cracked, distorted, and fed back, hit violent power chords right on the beat. ... [T]his music was heavy metal, years before the term was coined.
Palmer recalled one particular Wolf performance:
In later years, and especially after he began working mostly for white audiences, Wolf would take it easy. A little of the old ferocity was enough to ignite the most jaded college crowd. But I'll never forget a 1965 performance when Wolf played Memphis on a blues package show ...

The MC announced Wolf, and the curtains opened up 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, 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 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.
The Mighty Wolf, with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, in England (1964)

I'll Be Back Someday (1964)

Shake It For Me (1964)

How Many More Years (1966)

Dust My Broom (1966)

Finally, here is a clip I had never seen until I started putting this post together. It is from "Howlin' Wolf In Concert 1970", filmed at the Washington D.C. Blues Festival in November 1970.

"Highway 49" begins with Wolf -- at age 60! -- crawling on stage on his hands and knees, flashing a devilish grin. When I first saw this, I just about lost my mind at 4:10.

Later, Wolf is sitting stock still in a chair on stage, brooding and scowling, then looking incredibly self-satisfied, and you cannot stop staring, because what the hell is he going to do next?

If he was doing this shit when he was 60, what kind of otherworldly performances was he putting on 20-25 years earlier?!?!


laura k said...

The Mighty Wolf. He gives me chills.

allan said...

Similar to Palmer's recollection, here is Dick Waterman's recollection of Wolf playing the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival:

"Hubert is leading the band and the band is roaring away and no Wolf in sight. This is the Newport night concert, which is eighteen thousand people, and they were up in a frenzy. And the band is playing and still no Wolf. And finally from the back left corner of the stage, Wolf enters, wearing work boots, Farmer Brown bib overalls, a long-sleeve work shirt, a white straw hat -- a big, big hat. And he has a broom and he's sweeping the stage! The band keeps playing and Wolf keeps sweeping, slowly moving towards the front, and it takes a matter of minutes for him to do this. In Newport in those days, since they put so many acts on, each act had maybe seventeen or eighteen minutes ... For somebody to be wasting their stage minutes with these antics -- well the Newport people were just totally baffled. Not just baffled, but stunned. Wolf finally comes right up to the front of the stage. He's taken three or four minutes to do this, and the crowd is ... roaring, they're just yelling and screaming, and the band has whipped them into a frenzy! And Wolf gets right up to the front of the stage, grabs the microphone, throws down the broom, and right on the chord change, sings, 'I'm gonna get up in the mornin', I believe I'll dust my broom!" He just disintegrated them. Just destroyed them -- just destroyed them."