Howlin’ Wolf Marries The Blues and Rock’n’roll on Shindig
by Todd Beebe
The Blues has become more widely visible in American culture over the last 20 years. For those of us who love the Blues, we’d like to see it even more. However, there was a time when seeing an American bluesman on the television networks of his own homeland was unheard of.
It’s difficult to imagine rare things on television in the days of 2011 America. It seems we’ve pretty much seen everything there is to be seen and then some. But step into my time machine, if you will, and let’s travel back to the year 1965. May 20, 1965 to be exact.
Shindig was an American musical variety show which featured various musical acts including Sam Cooke, Sonny and Cher and Bo Diddley. The show debuted in September 1964 and ran through January 1966. Its fantastic house band included at various times James Burton, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell and Billy Preston. On this particular day of May 20, 1965, a relatively new act from England were scheduled to appear. They were called the Rolling Stones.
The Stones requested that one of their idols be on the show with them. That man’s name was Chester Burnett, AKA the Howlin’ Wolf.
In 1965, American television was very tame and strict. It needed something to shake its foundations a little, and to reveal to the public where Rock n Roll’s roots really were. Howlin’ Wolf did just that and then some. Wasting no time at all, Mr. Burnett grabbed us by the throat and greeted television watchers with “How many more years.” Wolf pointed his finger and shook around like nothing Americans had ever seen, all while teenagers and the Stones sat at his feet clapping and egging him on. It was simply amazing.
It had been a long road for Howlin’ Wolf. From his early days of recording in Memphis’s Sun Studios to his legendary Chess recordings, Wolf was unique. On the one hand, he was a veteran. Already a seasoned performer, he had played everywhere and anywhere imaginable. He had already proved himself several times over. On the other hand, he was about to be exposed to a huge part of America who had never witnessed anything like what he had to offer. [pullquote]It was as if he was a new artist, debuting for the first time.[/pullquote] Wolf already had an audience of his own that followed his work and knew him well. After his Shindig performance however, this new audience started to seek him out as well. This lead to new recording projects specifically aimed at this market (the London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions), and Wolf started to notice suburban youths at his shows in the Chicago clubs where he regularly performed.
As the 60’s progressed, the public, and certainly young people, became more and more aware of Rock n Roll’s Blues heritage, largely due to the popularity of British groups and their acknowledgement of the Blues and its impact on their music. Looking back at this era from 2011, Howlin’ Wolf’s appearance on Shindig was a turning point: the one major episode where Americans were finally slapped, once and for all, with the real power of the Blues and all it had to offer.
Think about it. The Rolling Stones, representing youth, presented with one of the founding fathers of Rock n Roll, the mighty Wolf. American culture would never be the same, and by decades end, a list of who’s who in Rock n Roll were acknowledging the Blues legends as their mentors and idols. The world would never be the same.
If you haven’t already seen it, check out the excellent DVD documentary on Howlin’ Wolf- The Howlin’ Wolf Story- The secret history of Rock n Roll. The Shindig footage is shown here, and there are countless interviews with many important people in Wolf’s life, including the great Hubert Sumlin. Also- grab a copy of the great Howlin’ Wolf biography, Moanin’ at Midnight from authors James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. This book does a fantastic job of tracking Howlin’ Wolf’s life. Both the DVD and the book are must haves for Blues lovers and fans of the Wolf.
2011 is a long ways from 1965. But on that 20th day of May, the great Howlin’ Wolf solidified the defining moment that would bring the Blues to mainstream America. The world would, thankfully, never be the same. Thank you, Howlin’ Wolf!