Howlin' Wolf was one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. His music influenced rock 'n' roll and the development of modern popular music; his stage act, in which he dropped to all fours, crawling and howlin', inspired countless imitators, as did his deep, rich baritone voice. But unless you were, to paraphrase a line from one of Willie Dixon's songs (expressly written for the Wolf), over 300lbs (135kg) and wore size 14 shoes, you would be hard-pressed to measure up to one of the USA's great musical icons.
Howlin' Wolf was one of the key pioneers of the electrified Chicago urban blues style that morphed into rhythm 'n' blues in the late 1940s and 1950s, along with his great competitor, Muddy Waters. Both led bands that would provide the template for rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s. Wolf's lead guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, became one of the first players to use distorted power chords and riffs, blazing a trail in guitar pyrotechnics that would inspire rock, punk, grunge and indy guitarists.
That Wolf is not regarded with the same reverence as other US musical legends like Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington is beyond me but with the release of the first full biography on the musician a few years ago, Moanin' At Midnight: The Life And Times Of Howlin' Wolf (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005 revised edition, USA) by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, his career and influence can be reassessed. I tried to get this book when it came out but it was withdrawn for some reason before I could get my hands on a copy. A visit to my local bookseller in Wales last week sorted out the matter, and I've been engrossed in his tough but ultimately triumphant life ever since.
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