Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Howlin Wolf Was Moanin' At Midnight

Howlin' Wolf (DeviantArt User FrelsAreN/CC)
Chicago blues are a truly deep vein in American music. After our series on Muddy Waters, it becomes evident that if we put that kind of attention into every great Chicago blues man we will never see any of Route 66. There is a lot more to mention though, so hang on tight and I will try to race us through the rest of the story.

The story of Muddy Waters has a sort of reflection. Muddy Waters had rivals. One of the biggest rivals to Muddy Waters was born in White Station, Mississippi on June 10, 1910. He would be given the name Chester Arthur Burnett, being named after the U.S. president Chester Arthur. We know him as Howlin' Wolf.


As a young child, he would hear stories from his grandfather about the wolves that  ran about in the part of the south and warned the boy, "If you don't behave, them howlin' wolves are gonna get ya." Like Muddy Waters he was given his nickname by a grandparent. He became Howlin' Wolf. As young man, he was big. At 6 foot 3 and 275 lbs., he was big and answered to other nicknames such as  Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow.  But Howlin' Wolf is the name that stayed with him.

Howlin' Wolf had a fairly rough childhood. His parents broke up when he was very young. He was a rebellious kid and his mother threw him out of the house for refusing to work on the farm. A harsh sentence for not doing chores, His uncle took him in at that point, but it was reported that he treated the boy badly. At the age of 13, Howlin' Wolf ran away. 

Later, Howlin' Wolf claimed was that he walked for 85 miles to go to the home of his estranged father. Finally, life was good as the boy settled into his fathers large and happy family, 

His mother never really forgave him and years later, after achieving success he returned home to visit her. She was not welcoming and drove him to tears, He tried to give her some money to make her life a little easier, but she refused saying that the only reason he had money was because he played  the 'devils music". Being treated that way by your own mother is enough to give a guy the blues-and Howlin' Wolf could moan the blues! But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before Howlin' Wolf could return to his mother as a success, only to be snubbed, first he needed to get his skills. 

Early Career

In 1930, Howlin' Wolf met blues legend Charlie Patton. They hit it off and Wolf was soon being taught to play guitar by Charlie Patton. Since Patton was a well known performer, some would claim the most famous blues man in the Delta area, he taught Howlin' Wolf a bit about performing as much as about playing. He taught Wolf to spin his guitar wrap it behind his back, toss it into the air and all the while keep the song alive, The legacy of Patton's showmanship gave Howlin' Wolf a leg up on other performers of his day. That same legacy  Jimi Hendrix would bring to the rock world nearly 40 years later.

With his flashy guitar handling, Howlin' Wolf performed throughout the south learning tricks and songs from other blues players recordings, He also preformed with a who's who of famous blues players playing in the area. It was a rich period in blues music and some of the talent that he performed with included Floyd Jones, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Son House and Willie Johnson. 

In 1941, Wolf was called up by the draft board and in April reported for duty. He served for two uncomfortable years, primarily in Washington and Oregon, finding it difficult to adjust to military life, In 1943 he was discharged and went back to his family, who had recently moved to a farm in West Memphis. Wolf worked the fields during the day and tried to rebuild his career in the evenings. 

His Big Break

1948 saw him fronting a band that included harmonica ace Junior Parker and guitarists  Matt "Guitar"Murphy and Willie Johnson, KWEM in West Memphis began to broadcast his performance. Soon the KFFA  in Helena followed suit, taking his music from the back road juke joints of the Deep South to white listeners in the area who might tune in to a "colored" broadcast.

One of those people may very well have been Sam Phillips, The owner of the Memphis Recording Service, he was was the first to get Howlin' ,Wolf in a studio in 1951. The time was right. Phillips leased the tracks out to a few other studios around the country for regional release, a practise in the days of small regional record labels, Riding In The Moonlight on came out on Los Angeles' RPM records and How Many More Years on Chicago's Chess Records. Both records featured Moanin' After Midnight as the B-side.

Both records were hits and the owners of RPM Records, the Bihari brothers and the Chess brothers in Chicago claimed exclusive contracts for future Howlin' Wolf recordings. Ultimately Chess won out and Chester Arthur Burnett, the Howlin' Wolf accepted "a 4000 car and 3900 dollars in my pocket". Wolf took the car and money and moved to Chicago.

Chess Records

Howlin' Wolf was joined by a Memphis band mate on the move to Chicago, rhythm guitar player Huber Sumlin. Sumlin would stay with Wolf for most of his career. His guitar playing offering an attacking angular style to compliment the rough grown of the Wolf.

(Source Wikipedia)
He would give Chess five R & B chart ranking songs during the 1950's, Moanin' at Midnight, Smokestack Lightning, How Many More Years, Who Will Be Next, and the wonderfully titled I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).  But it was his work in the early 1960's that really made his legacy. Songs such as Back Door Man, Wang Dang Doodle, Back Door Man, Killing Floor, Spoonful,  Little Red Rooster (Originally title The Red Rooster), and I Ain't Superstitious all came out then.

As we saw with Muddy Waters, Chess records had switched from a singles format to an album format for its artists in 1959. As a result Howlin' Wolfs early 1960's work were album tracks that did not make the charts, but it did get the attention of rock musicians, particularly in England.

The Rolling Stones and Shindig!

The Rolling Stones had a number one hit in Britain with their cover of Little Red Rooster. Like Muddy Waters song being the bands name tied the Stones to Muddy Waters, that early Rolling Stones hit tied the band to Howlin Wolf. There was a certain sort of special relationship between the blues man and the British rockers. For a 1965 appearance on the US TV program Shindig!, the Stones made it a condition that they would only appear if they could have Howlin Wolf appear with them as their special guest.  It would be his only national television appearance.

A Famous Rivalry

At Chess Records Leonard Chess ran a system studio. So many of the same marketing tactics he took with Muddy Waters, he also took with Howlin' Wolf. Both of them began their album releases with collections of previously released Chess Records. They both were marketed, with modest success to fans of the "Great Folk Music Scare" of the early 1960's. They both had London Session Albums. They both had experimental forays into "psychedelic" music with little success.

(Flickr User kevin dooley/CC)
Another way he way like Muddy Waters was that  Howlin' Wolf was a popular live act and performed often.  On stage he was the Wolf, stalking the stage and pouncing on Willie Dixon's songs with a growl. In fact it was those Willie Dixon songs that had a lot to do with the rivalry felt between Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Willie Dixon was able to churn out the hits for both men, but Wolf always felt that Muddy was getting the better tracks to record. Willie and Leonard Chess were said to have egged on the rivalry a bit to bring out better performances for both men. 

Howlin' Wolf was particularly good to the members of his band paying them well, and even providing insurance, Even today, many musicians do not get benefits like that. He was a competitive. and economically a pretty conservative guy. Even though it was a friendly rivalry, Wolf thought that Muddy Waters was making more money because of who got what songs from Willie Dixon.

It probably wasn't personal. Willie Dixon reportedly once said "Muddy is the kind of person you can give any kind of lyric, he's what you call a quick study. Wolf, you can't give him too many words, because he gets 'em all jumbled up. And if he gets 'em right, he still ain't gonna get the right meaning".

One Last Hit

In the late 1960's Howlin Wolf's long life of performing was catching up with him and his health began to decline. In 1969, he suffered his first heart attack, It did not stop him. By May if 1970 he was well enough to travel to England where he recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions that had some well known sidemen from the rock world such as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Ringo Starr, and Ian Stewart.

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions was his most successful album eventually peaking at number 19 during its 15 week run on the Billboard Top 200. It would be a bit of a swan song.

The Wolf Stops Howlin'

Howlin' Wolf In 1972(Source Wikipedia)
Howlin Wolf  had few more studio albums in him, in 1971 he released his "psychedelic" record Message To The Young, Like Muddy Waters, the psychedelic experiment proved to be the low point in his career. Shortly after it s release he suffered another heart attack.

Doctors found his kidneys to be failing. The quickly got him onto a dialysis treatments and told him he needed to stop performing. Howlin' Wolf was a pro and for a pro the show must go on. He ignored his doctors.

Howlin Wolf recorded a last live album in 1972 ,and his last studio album, The Back Door Wolf , in 1973. He was nominated a few Grammys in 1975, but the end was near.

On January 7, 1976, Howlin Wolf was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Surgery was performed, but he never recovered and he was taken off life support and died on January 10, 1976. he would not live to see his rival have a bloom of late career success with Johnny Winters, the Wolf would howl now more.


Another similarity between Waters and the Wolf were the awards and recognition they both received.

The Blues Foundation Awards Nominations in 1981, 1989, 1990, 1995 and  2004

The Blues Foundation Awards Won:

  • 1987 Vintage/Reissue Album (US) Moanin' in the Moonlight
  • 1988 Vintage/Reissue Album (Foreign) Killing Floor: Masterworks Vol. 5
  • 1992 Vintage or Reissue Blues Album—US or Foreign The Chess Box—Howlin' Wolf

In 1994, the US Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.

Hall Of Fame Inductions

  • 1980 Blues Hall of Fame
  • 1991 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Chief curator John Henke compiled a list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" Three Howlin Wolf records made the list: 1956's Smokestack Lightning , 1960's Spoonful, and 1961's The Red Rooster)
  • 1999        Grammy Hall Of Fame (Smokestack Lightning Blues (Single) Chess 1956)
  • 2003 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame

The Howlin' Wolf Foundation has been established by Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend Howlin' Wolf's legacy. The foundation mission and goals include the preservation of the blues music genre, scholarships for students to participate in music programs, and support for blues musicians and blues programs.

(Flickr User Gary J. Wood/CC)

Playlist Additions

The playlist get some limited additions from the Howlin Wolf catalog this week. He deserves more, but I find my collection not as deep with his music as it should be.

Artist: Howlin' Wolf

I Asked For Water (She gave Me Gasoline) A Rage In Harlem (Music From The Film) 2:51
Saddle My Pony Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Howlin' Wolf 2:34
Worried About My Baby (rehearsal) Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Howlin' Wolf 4:33
Smokestack Lightin' Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey 3:08
Killing Floor Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey 2:50
Highway 49 Car And Driver: Greatest Car Songs And Other Lost Treasures Of The Road 2:48

Signing Off and Coming Attractions

Next Week: The old Highway 101 passes through Old Town San Diego, California. We will return there to celebrate a holiday.
Two Weeks: Leaving Jupiter, Florida and heading North on Interstate 95.
Three Weeks: We return to Chicago, Illinois at the beginning of Route 66 with still more blues.

Mileage Stats

Route 66: 0 Miles/1 State/700 Tracks/173 Videos/32 Posts

Highway 101: 22 Miles/2 Countries/1 State/518 Tracks/216 Videos/24 Posts

Interstate 95: 92 Miles/1 State/49 Tracks/87 Videos/10 Posts

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