GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: HOWLIN’ WOLF
By Todd Beebe
On the wall at Legends there is a Mount Rushmore of the Blues, known affectionately as Mount Bluesmore. There are only four faces on Mount Bluesmore: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and last but certainly not least: the mighty Howlin’ Wolf.
With a monstrous voice that shook listeners to the core, Howlin’ Wolf was performing like a rock star before the term even existed. Stalking the stage with a presence to die for, nobody dared follow him onstage. A music critic once said, “If you want to know what stage presence is, just point at Howlin’ Wolf and divide by ten.”
Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. He was named after the 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. Young Chester’s grandfather often warned him that if he ever misbehaved, the wolf would come and get him. He added a little intimidating “howl” each time he told the tale. Chester both feared the wolf and was struck with curiosity, and the tale followed him until it twisted its way into his life long stage name.
From an early age Wolf was influenced by everything musical. Even the sounds of passing trains seemed musical to him. Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) taught him how to play the harmonica. But everything fell into place when he saw Charley Patton perform. He convinced his father to buy him his first guitar, and the first song he ever learned was Patton’s “Pony Blues.” Wolf studied Patton’s every move, watching how the crowd reacted to his performances. He soon realized that they reacted as much to the great showmanship as they did to the music. [pullquote]Wolf said of Patton, “When he played his guitar, he would turn it over backwards and forwards, and throw it around over his shoulders, between his legs, throw it up in the sky.”[/pullquote] Wolf took that inspiration and ran with it. At 6′ 3” and 275 lbs., this giant of a man prowled the stage, moaning and howling, terrifying and intimidating. The stage was Wolf’s domain, and anyone who witnessed him perform live never forgot it.
In the late 1940’s Wolf landed a radio spot on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, advertising farm gear and playing his blues in between. The legendary Sam Phillips heard Wolf on the radio and brought him to Memphis, Tennessee to record him at Sun Records. Years later someone asked Phillips who his greatest discovery was. The man who discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others said it was, without a doubt, Howlin’ Wolf:
When I heard him, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies’. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I’ve ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is 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 today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man’s face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you’d see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.
His first recordings came in 1951 with “Moanin’ At Midnight,” and “How Many More Years.” No records were ever released on the Sun label though, and Chess Records and RPM both fought to get Wolf full time. Chess eventually won, and soon Howlin’ Wolf was on his way to Chicago. His years with Chess Records are the stuff of legend. They include blues classics like Wolf’s own “Smokestack Lightning,” and “”Killing Floor.” He also put his stamp on Willie Dixon tunes like “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Evil,” “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” and “Little Red Rooster.”
It is mandatory to mention Wolf’s lifelong musical partner, Hubert Sumlin. Hubert hooked up with Wolf before he moved to Chicago. Wolf told him to be ready when he called for him to come to the Windy City. Wolf called, Hubert came, and the blues world became a better place. Hubert Sumlin’s Guitar playing is an incredibly important part of Howlin’ Wolf’s music. They were an inseparable institution of the blues, and Sumlin’s playing is heard all over those great Chess classics from Howlin’ Wolf.
As popular music tastes changed and rock’n’roll swept the world, blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf were the source of inspiration for a whole generation of younger acts. In May of 1965, The Rolling Stones brought Wolf on the TV show Shindig, showing the world where their music came from. As the late 60’s came, more and more rock acts acknowledged the founding fathers of the blues. Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Albert King now found themselves on the same bill as acts like The Jefferson Airplane and Cream. For Howlin’ Wolf this whole scene peaked with the release of the album The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, which featured him with younger artists, presenting new versions of his classic tunes.
He continued to perform into the 1970’s, despite health problems. Howlin’ Wolf was a bluesman in every sense of the word, and not performing was not an option. “Back Door Wolf” was his last album, released in 1973. He gave his last major performance in November, 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheater on a bill with Luther Allison, B.B. King and others. This night has gone down in blues history, as Wolf pulled out all the stops. He shook, rolled and prowled the stage, once again reminding the world who the master was.
On January 10, 1976, the world lost one of the giants of the blues. His legacy is far too long to list here. Guitarists, vocalists, and performers of all genres of music constantly cite Howlin’ Wolf as a huge influence. Many have tried to recreate his style through the years, but there will never be another Howlin’ Wolf. He was perhaps the most unique artist this world will ever see. Any time anyone hits the stage with massive presence, he’s there. Any time anyone sings with every last drop of emotion they can pull from their soul, he’s there. Any time anyone performs exactly how they want to, and doesn’t worry about following a trend or doing the expected, Howlin’ Wolf is there.
I’d like to close with a quote from Howlin’ Wolf about the blues. Anyone who says they don’t like the blues should remember it.
“When you ain’t got no money- you’ve got the Blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay your house rent, you’ve still got the Blues. Alot of people holler “I don’t like no Blues”, but when you ain’t got no money, and you can’t pay your house rent, and can’t buy no food, you damn sure got the Blues!”