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Howlin’ Wolf

Long before the gritty avant-garde blues of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & His Magic Band (plus the plethora of Delta disciples that followed), there was the legend that was HOWLIN’ WOLF; born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, White Station, Clay County, Mississippi. Although he was not the first bluesman to call himself by that moniker (that distinction belongs to J.T. Smith) he would be the only HOWLIN’ WOLF to everyone involved with the genre. Delta bluesman or Chicago titan – who knows? But whatever you think, there was not anything like him as he finally kick-started his recording career in the early 50s. The blues can boast better guitarists, better composers, better harmonica players and, yes, better growlers, but no one has produced a more distinctive larynx or a more compelling human stage presence.
During the decade, HOWLIN’ WOLF recorded most of his classic repertoire, including mainly his own compositions: `Moanin’ At Midnight’, `How Many More Years’, `Smokestack Lightnin’’, `No Place To Go’, `Evil’ (his first to be penned by his bassist WILLIE DIXON) and `I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)’ – all showcased on his 1959-issued debut LP, a compilation entitled MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT {*10}; re-issued a decade later as “Evil”.
One of the most important of the Southern expatriates who created the “Chicago Sound” of the 50s, his earliest musical experience, as with many other blues artists, was singing in the local Baptist church choir. Inspired by CHARLEY PATTON (who taught him how to play guitar) and TOMMY JOHNSON, Chester gleaned much of his showmanship from them, although his powerful voice and “howling” were very much his own (further influences were to be ROBERT JOHNSON and SON HOUSE). Burnett was a farmer to trade until late in his thirties when he was introduced by IKE TURNER to Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips, in turn, made deals with RPM/Modern Records in Los Angeles and, more so, Leonard Chess in Chicago.
The HOWLIN’ WOLF’s first single, the aforementioned `Moanin’ At Midnight’ was released by both companies concurrently, although Chess avoided split sales by also promoting the B-side, `How Many More Years’. This track was by far the heaviest blues song (in rock terms) released in America to date; both versions of the song reaching the R&B Top 20. After much wrangling between the two record companies, HW decided to sign exclusively for Chess in 1952, subsequently moving to Chicago and leaving his band behind in the process. The records never sold well after his initial success, although the label were making plenty of money through CHUCK BERRY and BO DIDDLEY and could afford to keep the bluesman in business to maintain their core ghetto audience.
HW eventually went back “down home” to pick up some Delta musicians, including a teenage guitarist going by the name of HUBERT SUMLIN. Despite initial conflict, including one incident in which they punched out each other’s front teeth, Hubert virtually became Wolf’s adopted son, remaining by his side for the remainder of his career.
On the back of some classic 45s that were big on import sales, the bulging bluesman came to Britain in 1961; Pye Records released `Little Baby’ as his first UK single. Better still was his parent/US-only sophomore set, HOWLIN’ WOLF “The Rockin’ Chair Album” (1962) {*9}, another compilation-type slice of vinyl that unearthed several DIXON-scribed cuts, including the classic `Shake For Me’ and `Back Door Man’ (both lyrically borrowed for LED ZEPPELIN’s `Whole Lotta Love’), `The Red Rooster’ (soon-to-be chart-topper `Little Red Rooster’ for The ROLLING STONES), `Wang Dang Doodle’ (a subsequent minor hit for Chess blueswoman KOKO TAYLOR) and `Spoonful’ (dished up later by CREAM).
In 1963, HOWLIN’ WOLF was recorded live in tandem alongside MUDDY WATERS, BUDDY GUY and SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON; the performance being released the following year as `Folk Festival Of The Blues’. The Wolf was allegedly not easy to work with, being described by some of his associates as “bone stupid”, illiterate and slow-witted. He was also chronically suspicious that everyone was out to cheat him and convinced that MUDDY WATERS was his most deadly enemy, even though his rival had helped him get work when he first came to Chicago.
WILLIE DIXON, who wrote and arranged much of HOWLIN’s classic Chess material, claimed that the only way he could get the Wolf to record a song was to tell him that Muddy wanted it! Despite all this “wang dang doodle”, his loyal fans in Britain included The ROLLING STONES and YARDBIRDS; these groups publicising his work both in Europe and in white America, leading to his music becoming a significant influence on the emerging rock music of the day. Many of his songs were covered by a number of diverse artists, although only the aforementioned CAPTAIN BEEFHEART came close to the raucous aggressiveness of the originals.
HOWLIN’s only pop hit, the magnificent `Smokestack Lightnin’’, tore into the charts in June 1964, eight years after its original US release. In 1967 he recorded the album, THE SUPER SUPER BLUES BAND (1968) {*6} with BO DIDDLEY and MUDDY WATERS, although disappointingly, it only contained re-workings of familiar songs rather than fresh material.
1969 was a year of dramatic contrasts for him; Chess and HW were impressed by the success of MUDDY WATERS’ `Electric Mud’ LP and they decided to release the similarly-conceived psychedelic opus, THE HOWLIN’ WOLF ALBUM {*7}. The record was an unmitigated commercial disaster, the singer himself even commenting, wrongly in many pundits opinions, that it was “dog-shit”. And to give it its full title:- “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”.
Experiencing a string of heart attacks and then a kidney ailment after a car accident which left him permanently dependent on dialysis, his gigs were limited to half a dozen songs. His attempt to incorporate soul, gospel, funk and smooth Blaxploitation jazz-blues on 1971’s MESSAGE TO THE YOUNG {*4} was not for the uninitiated – he was no ISSAC HAYES that’s for sure.
HOWLIN’ was back on familiar ground with THE HOWLIN’ WOLF LONDON SESSIONS (1971) {*6}, recorded and credited with, among others, ERIC CLAPTON, STEVE WINWOOD, BILL WYMAN and CHARLIE WATTS. During the recording of the album, HW attempted to teach the correct beat of `The Red Rooster’ to his esteemed backers by playing bottleneck guitar. The years between rock stars of the day and iconic blues artists had now seen their day. Captured in concert and almost bootleg-esque, LIVE AND COOKIN’ AT ALICE’S REVISITED (1972) {*5} was certainly not what the doctor ordered; croaky rather gritty on the likes of `Sitting On Top Of The World’, `Call Me The Wolf’ and a rare cover of a MUDDY WATERS track, `Mean Mistreater’.
One final bellow at the world was the extraordinary `Coon On The Moon’ single (penned by his Wolf Gang musician Eddie Shaw) from the 1973 album THE BACK DOOR WOLF {*6}; the CD re-issue remained unavailable for some time (probably down to politically correct times). At 63 years of age, and his best behind him, the LP – highlighting `Moving’ and `Stop Using Me’ – was a good send off for one of the greatest blues stars of all time. After a concert at Chicago Amphitheater (November ’75) alongside B.B. KING, BOBBY BLAND and LITTLE MILTON, he was re-hospitalized in Hines, Illinois, and died there on January 10, 1976 following brain surgery.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2015

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