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Howlin Wolf

In the history of the blues, there has never been anyone quite like the Howlin' Wolf. Six foot three and close to 300 pounds inhis salad days, the Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may havepossessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no onecould match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons outof its wits.

He was born in West Point, MS, and named after the 21st President of the ...read more

In the history of the blues, there has never been anyone quite like the Howlin' Wolf. Six foot three and close to 300 pounds inhis salad days, the Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may havepossessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no onecould match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons outof its wits.

He was born in West Point, MS, and named after the 21st President of the United States (Chester Arthur). His father was afarmer and Wolf took to it as well until his 18th birthday, when a chance meeting with Delta blues legend Charley Pattonchanged his life forever. Though he never came close to learning the subtleties of Patton's complex guitar technique, two ofthe major components of Wolf's style (Patton's inimitable growl of a voice and his propensity for entertaining) were learnedfirst hand from the Delta blues master. The main source of Wolf's hard-driving, rhythmic style on harmonica came when Aleck"Rice" Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson) married his half-sister Mary and taught him the rudiments of the instrument. He firststarted playing in the early '30s as a strict Patton imitator, while others recall him at decade's end rocking the juke joints witha neck-rack harmonica and one of the first electric guitars anyone had ever seen. After a four-year stretch in the Army, hesettled down as a farmer and weekend player in West Memphis, AR, and it was here that Wolf's career in music began inearnest.

By 1948, he had established himself within the community as a radio personality. As a means of advertising his own localappearances, Wolf had a 15-minute radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, interspersing his down-home blues with farmreports and like-minded advertising that he sold himself. But a change in Wolf's sound that would alter everything that cameafter was soon in coming because when listeners tuned in for Wolf's show, the sound was up-to-the-minute electric. Wolfhad put his first band together, featuring the explosive guitar work of Willie Johnson, whose aggressive style not onlyperfectly suited Wolf's sound but aurally extended and amplified the violence and nastiness of it as well. In any discussion ofWolf's early success both live, over the airwaves, and on record, the importance of Willie Johnson cannot be overestimated.

Wolf finally started recording in 1951, when he caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who first heard him on his morning radio show.The music Wolf made in the Memphis Recording Service studio was full of passion and zest and Phillips simultaneously leasedthe results to the Bihari Brothers in Los Angeles and Leonard Chess in Chicago. Suddenly, Howlin' Wolf had two hits at thesame time on the R&B charts with two record companies claiming to have him exclusively under contract. Chess finally wonhim over and as Wolf would proudly relate years later, "I had a 4,000 dollar car and 3,900 dollars in my pocket. I'm the onliestone drove out of the South like a gentleman." It was the winter of 1953 and Chicago would be his new home.

When Wolf entered the Chess studios the next year, the violent aggression of the Memphis sides was being replaced with aChicago backbeat and, with very little fanfare, a new member in the band. Hubert Sumlin proved himself to be the Wolf'slongest-running musical associate. He first appears as a rhythm guitarist on a 1954 session, and within a few years' time hisstyle had fully matured to take over the role of lead guitarist in the band by early 1958. In what can only be described as an"angular attack," Sumlin played almost no chords behind Wolf, sometimes soloing right through his vocals, featuring wildskitterings up and down the fingerboard and biting single notes. If Willie Johnson was Wolf's second voice in his earlyrecording career, then Hubert Sumlin would pick up the gauntlet and run with it right to the end of the howler's life.

By 1956, Wolf was in the R&B charts again, racking up hits with "Evil" and "Smokestack Lightnin'." He remained a topattraction both on the Chicago circuit and on the road. His records, while seldom showing up on the national charts, were stillselling in decent numbers down South. But by 1960, Wolf was teamed up with Chess staff writer Willie Dixon, and for the nextfive years he would record almost nothing but songs written by Dixon. The magic combination of Wolf's voice, Sumlin's guitar,and Dixon's tunes sold a lot of records and brought the 50-year-old bluesman roaring into the next decade with aconsiderable flourish. The mid-'60s saw him touring Europe regularly with "Smokestack Lightnin'" becoming a hit in Englandsome eight years after its American release. Certainly any list of Wolf's greatest sides would have to include "I Ain'tSuperstitious," "The Red Rooster," "Shake for Me," "Back Door Man," "Spoonful," and "Wang Dang Doodle," Dixon compositionsall. While almost all of them would eventually become Chicago blues standards, their greatest cache occurred when rockbands the world over started mining the Chess catalog for all it was worth. One of these bands was the Rolling Stones,whose cover of "The Red Rooster" became a number-one record in England. At the height of the British Invasion, the Stonescame to America in 1965 for an appearance on ABC-TV's rock music show, Shindig. Their main stipulation for appearing on theprogram was that Howlin' Wolf would be their special guest. With the Stones sitting worshipfully at his feet, the Wolfperformed a storming version of "How Many More Years," being seen on his network-TV debut by an audience of a few million.Wolf never forgot the respect the Stones paid him, and he spoke of them highly right up to his final days.

Dixon and Wolf parted company by 1964 and Wolf was back in the studio doing his own songs. One of the classics to emergefrom this period was "Killing Floor," featuring a modern backbeat and a incredibly catchy guitar riff from Sumlin. Catchy enoughfor Led Zeppelin to appropriate it for one of their early albums, cheerfully crediting it to themselves in much the same manneras they had done with numerous other blues standards. By the end of the decade, Wolf's material was being recorded byartists including the Doors, the Electric Flag, the Blues Project, Cream, and Jeff Beck. The result of all these covers broughtWolf the belated acclaim of a young, white audience. Chess' response to this was to bring him into the studio for a"psychedelic" album, truly the most dreadful of his career. His last big payday came when Chess sent him over to England in1970 to capitalize on the then-current trend of London Session albums, recording with Eric Clapton on lead guitar and otherBritish superstars. Wolf's health was not the best, but the session was miles above the earlier, ill-advised attempt to updateWolf's sound for a younger audience.

As the '70s moved on, the end of the trail started coming closer. By now Wolf was a very sick man; he had survivednumerous heart attacks and was suffering kidney damage from an automobile accident that sent him flying through the car'swindshield. His bandleader Eddie Shaw firmly rationed Wolf to a meager half-dozen songs per set. Occasionally some of theold fire would come blazing forth from some untapped wellspring, and his final live and studio recordings show that he couldstill tear the house apart when the spirit moved him. He entered the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1976 to be operatedon, but never survived it, finally passing away on January 10th of that year.

But his passing did not go unrecognized. A life-size statue of him was erected shortly after in a Chicago park. Eddie Shawkept his memory and music alive by keeping his band, the Wolf Gang, together for several years afterward. A child-educationcenter in Chicago was named in his honor and in 1980 he was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. In 1991, he wasinducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A couple of years later, his face was on a United States postage stamp. Howlin'Wolf is now a permanent part of American history. « hide

Similar Bands: Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Albert King

LPs
The Back Door Wolf
1973

4
9 Votes
The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions
1971

4.4
13 Votes
The Howlin' Wolf Album
1969

4.1
25 Votes
Howlin' Wolf
1962

4.4
43 Votes
Moanin' in the Moonlight
1959

4.4
67 Votes
Compilations
Smokestack Lightning – Complete Chess Masters 1951
2011

4.6
5 Votes
His Best
1997

4.3
12 Votes
The Real Folk Blues
1965

4.4
4 Votes
Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight


4.2
39 Votes

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