Howlings of a haunted Wolf

One of the most influential blues musicians is getting some of the recognition he is due

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 I tried to get this book when it came out but it was withdrawn for some reason before I could get my hands on a copy.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.

In the past decade or so, several key biographies on leading Chicago R&B stars like Muddy Waters and blues harp maestro Little Walter have filled in the background to the extraordinarily creative place Chicago must have been during the period when Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters were kings of the scene, blowing all comers off the stages of small clubs and juke joints.

Muddy and Wolf learnt their music in the Mississippi delta and they both learnt their trade from itinerant country blues masters like Charlie Patton and Sun House; when they migrated North they took this rich cultural heritage with them and used it as the base from which to develop their music.

Wolf, born Chester Burnett in the tiny hamlet of White Station, Mississippi, around 1907, was turned out of his own home by his mother as a young teenager, but found a place with his great-uncle, who would work him hard on the cotton fields and make him eat separately to his children. His was whipped if he made any mistakes. Eventually he reconnected with his father who bought him his first guitar at 18.

Wolf did not dally, he found out that Charlie Patton lived nearby so he hassled the troubadour and despite having hands like hams, learnt Patton's all-action percussive guitar style (Wolf never became a great guitarist or harmonica player but he was mightily effective at what he did and he did it well) which would stay with him all his career, as would Patton's clowning and sexual stage manner.

For much of his early career, he would travel to Saturday night fish fry parties or juke joint gigs solo or with Patton (before he lost his mojo to the demon liquor) and any number of legends like Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines and Sonny Boy Williamson II. It was Sonny Boy who taught Wolf to play the harmonica while he courted Wolf's step-sister. He would return to ploughing and farming for two months every year during the planting season _ all the while singing behind his mules and making up instant rhyming lyrics.

He was a musician for nearly 20 years before he moved north to Chicago to fame and fortune, which led to international recognition, particularly from young British musicians like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. By the mid-1960s, many US and UK musicians had covered Wolf's songs like Spoonful and Smokestack Lightnin'.

Wolf suffered the after-effects of a car crash and kidney problems later in his career and he died in 1973, leaving behind a brilliant musical legacy.

The authors have done a commendable job of dealing with the myths and facts of this great singer's life, interviewing seemingly everyone who met, saw or played with him. Sometimes this is over-done, as are the details of every single song he released, and this does get in the way of separating the real man from the myth.

Despite this, we do get a sense of those who were key in his development: Hubert Sumlin's unique finger-picking guitar style that complemented Wolf's one-chord style and booming baritone (Muddy had a similar relationship with pianist Otis Spann); and his on-off relationship with Muddy Waters. The background to Willie Dixon's songwriting for Wolf is also fascinating _ Dixon was able to write perfect songs for the haunted, bitter Wolf and for the relaxed, gregarious Muddy with ease.

What emerges is the story of a master musician who beat the abuse of his childhood and the pain that it caused, through his music. He poured his bitterness into classics like Smokestack Lightnin' and made sure through self-study (he spent many years in adult education learning to read and write and how to keep his books) that he would never go back to the harsh life of the delta.

Wolf was a no-nonsense man _ no drinking in his bands, always be on time _ but he also made sure social welfare payments were made for his band members _ not something Muddy would do. Wolf managed his money well, unlike many blues musicians, and took care of his family. You can't ask more than that.

I bought one of those portable vinyl turntables on my recent trip to the UK and all this week I've been playing Howling Wolf's greatest hits. The elemental power of his music, the mighty force of his voice, booming out from a piece of shellac impressed even my son, who normally listens to J-Pop. As the song says about him: "Three hundred pounds of heavenly joy." And that's just what he delivered _ heavenly joy.


This column can be contacted at: clewley.john@gmail.com.

About the author

columnist
Writer: John Clewley
Position: Reporter