Howlin’ Wolf ‘The Chess Box’

updated and republished by popular request

Few individuals in blues have the same force of personality and raw talent, the myth-like presence and long-ranging influence of Howlin’ Wolf. He is simply legendary for all the right reasons, and that truly rare occurrence of a unique artist, genuinely inimitable though often copied. Standing 6’ 3” and weighing in at up to three hundred pounds, a man both figuratively and literally larger than life, possessed of a manic energy onstage and sincere expression of his inner soul, Wolf exuded a commanding — almost hypnotic — quality that is felt in his music.

Born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in West Point, Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf’s early years (and most of his adult life) were ones of physical/economic hardship, tragedy and heartache, with music being his sole intellectual outlet. His parents separated early, Wolf staying with his unstable mother who for unknown reasons soon kicked him out; the poorly dressed young boy was forced to walk many miles and go live with his great uncle — a violent, cruel man who mistreated all the children under his and his wife’s care, and systematically physically/psychologically abused the young Wolf in particular — until age thirteen when he ran away to avoid an especially brutal beating for inadvertently killing a hog. Wolf “hoboed” his way on train and foot to the Mississippi Delta to live with his father and new family, who were farmers on a plantation — the type of existence where one toiled all year possibly only to be in debt to the landlord — and Wolf continued the trade well into the 1940s. (Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. Segrest and Hoffman. 4-13; all quotes, unless stated otherwise, are taken from Moanin’ at Midnight)

The Mississippi Delta was not only fertile ground for farming, but also a fecund wellspring for the development and existence of the blues and early American music, in particular the Delta blues style, as famously first recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930/40s — notable Delta blues musicians, in a very long list, include Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. It was Charlie Patton though, a popular Delta bluesman especially gifted on guitar, who would first mesmerize the teenage Wolf and mentor the budding musician (20). Wolf soon developed his own playing/vocal style accompanying Patton and others on the Juke Joint circuit, then eventually as the main attraction himself — ‘jukes’ were rough places where the poor local black farmers could cut loose with cheap homemade booze, fish fries, dancing to live music, regular brawls and the occasional murder. Every year Wolf would return from his life of traveling bluesman to break and till the land on his family’s farm. The only interruption to this routine was from 1941-45 when he was drafted into the army.

Though Wolf did not serve overseas in World War II, those four years in the army and especially the reasons for his discharge, are telling of the fragile inner nature within the tough giant, the permanent scars of his wounded childhood. Wolf suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, partly due to his inability to mesh into the soul/mind-crushing military machine, and his already nervous disposition towards all things rooted in authority and control due to the abuse suffered as a child at the hands of his stepfather. Labelled a “mental defective” by one army psychologist, neatly wrapping up any loose ends for the military cause and effect side, Wolf was honorably discharged back into society where he could resume his ‘intelligent’ musical rambles. (54)

Eventually Wolf’s skill, personality, and local popularity landed him a regular gig on Memphis radio where he played his songs and advertised products with equal gusto. In 1951 Sam Phillips (he of Elvis Presley fame and later founder of Sun Records), still a young idealistic producer, heard Wolf on the radio and instantly realized something special: “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies “ (87). Wolf made his first recordings with Phillips in Memphis for the Chicago-based Chess Records. The first two recordings are particular standouts: “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years”, both exemplifying the earlier Memphis sound. After tough negotiations with competitor RPM Records (with whom Wolf had been simultaneously recording in 1951/52), Chess Records eventually won full rights on recording Wolf and by 1952/53 Wolf was coaxed into moving to Chicago. Phillips forever regretted losing Wolf over to the full artistic control of the Chess brothers (this mainly was the impetus for creating his own label), feeling the loss of recording Wolf’s career as even greater than the discovery of Elvis. It was due to Philips vision and his belief in Wolf as a special artist in various respects, including one that pointed which direction the new musical stylings (known as Rock and Roll) could go, that gave Wolf the start he finally deserved at age 41 — Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters both, for example, receiving much earlier recording starts. Soon Wolf would be appreciated not only in America, and more significantly White America in the younger adventurous generation, but also internationally where he would become a blues icon particularly in Europe and was one of the first wave of American bluesmen to make distinctive impressions in England and the music scene germinating there in the 1950s and 60s, later growing into bands like the Rolling Stones/Yardbirds/Zeppelin.

Howlin’ Wolf, atypically for a bluesman, was not especially known for his guitar playing (considering those large sausage fingers it is amazing he was nonetheless adept/skilled — nothing like those long pliant fingers of Robert Johnson). On the harmonica he could be a demon, even mastering the double technique playing one each with the nose/mouth, and he appears on most recordings as the lead harmonica, but it still seems to me like an extension of the instrument for which he will forever be remembered, his voice. B.B. King called Wolf “one of a kind. Nobody I heard before him or after him has had that fantastic delivery — that certain something in his voice that seemed like a sword that’d pierce your soul” (xvii). No one who hears Wolf’s voice can escape feeling ‘something’ deeply universal or archetypal — be it anger, pain, anguish, desire or pure joy — combining animalistic howl/growl with human experience, on a level that is not easily intellectualized but rather needs to be experienced. Talking of his young band members Wolf once remarked, “These boys think they know music, but they don’t know life“, encapsulating the root of the blues and his own musical expression (Dick Shurman liner notes, Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box, p. 16).

The first time I heard Howlin’ Wolf was during my early years of university, much like those other white kids, primarily college, who were initially exposed during the 1960s to Wolf’s powerfully dangerous music that seemed to suggest and surpass Rock n’ Roll simultaneously. A friend gave me a cassette tape (this was the early 90s when CD-R and mp3s had yet to rule), perhaps the last cassette I ever received, with Linton Kwesi Johnson on one side, and the other side a compilation of Howlin’ Wolf taken from the exceptional Chess Box released in 1991. I will always remember the thrill of hearing of Wolf’s voice tell the story — perhaps apocryphally — of how his grandfather originated the nickname (“Wolf Talks #2”), which aptly preceded the track “I’m The Wolf”. Wolf’s sonorous, gravelly sing-song voice had an element of wisdom and authenticity that reverberated in my mind, genuinely emoting the blues of humanity. Soon enough I was no longer playing cassettes on my audio system, and that Wolf/Johnson tape was relegated to a dusty box. I had to wait about ten years before I came across one of my most prized vinyl finds, the double LP French pressing re-issue on Chess Records of Wolf’s greatest hits, in near mint condition, and rediscover Wolf on musical and emotional levels (as we grow older, who doesn’t have more of the blues experience in their life history?).

That double LP was issued in 1976, the year Wolf died, and reprinted Peter Guralnick’s commemorative Rolling Stone article on the inner gatefold, where he neatly sums up Wolf’s appeal and legacy:

His blues could be savage, doleful, elated, or mournful by turns, depending on his mood, and the fascination of his performance, aside from the towering nature of the music itself, was his almost constant sense of engagement”.

The high quality French pressing revealed qualities in Wolf’s music that the recorded cassette and even the original CD did not exhibit (perhaps partly due to the remastering and analog to digital conversion limitations), which proved that the source material was not ‘flawed’ like, say, the scratchy/muted recorded versions of Robert Johnson’s songs (recently re-mastered and somewhat cleaned up on CD but still sounding clearer/fuller on the mono pressing). The twenty-four tracks are all perfect blues gems, admirably representing the man’s musical output albeit on four meagre sides, and I heard and felt new elements in the songs.

Most memorably the humming that begins “Moaning at Midnight” literally resonated in my body and sent chills up my spine, tingling hairs — as if I had heard a ghost whisper in my ear. That Wolf merely humming can have such an effect intimates the power of the voice behind it . The song truly evokes a feeling of paranoia, suggestive of the supernatural, and a universal anxiety or fear — a running palpitation of unease — throughout, that could easily translate to any source. That is to say, whatever you may be be truly afraid of, “Moanin’ at Midnight” was vague enough in its suggestions that it could apply, thus lending it a universality of emotion.

Such a quality is the hallmark of blues, where the common thread of human experience, especially various forms of anguish, is often a cathartic release for the listener, who paradoxically feels uplifted or even joyful afterwards.

It is perhaps that universal humanity expressed and felt in Wolf’s songs that accounts for his long standing popularity and influence. On my vinyl copy, Wolf’s acknowledged masterpiece “Smokestack Lightnin’” never sounded better, more ‘real’ or ‘present’, and evoking that feeling of the young boy jumping a train (reminiscent of the sadness/fear expressed in Johnson’s “I Hear My Train a Comin’”), the music crying for a tearless man.

On “No Place To Go” we experience the flip-side of Wolf the showman’s loud extrovert persona exhibited on stage, and the voice is sublimely and powerfully restrained. You can sense the beast within barely contained, on the precipice of release. This subtler tone is maintained, creating a continued tremor of interplay between voice and harp, a musical crying. Wolf’s version of “My Country Sugar Mama” takes us on a sexy rolling ride, where you can just feel the hips swinging, with suggestive lyrics that a young twenty-something male (as I was at the time) can’t resist repeating: “I like my coffee in the mornin’, crazy about my tea at night / If I don’t get my sugar three times a day, oh darlin’ I don’t feel right”.

The hard-rocking almost neo-psychedelic “Killing Floor” and the electric R&B take on Johnson’s “Dust My Broom”, are good examples of the two sides of the new electric blues style Wolf and others were creating/developing at this time.

Though Wolf would slowly lose some of his regular black fans, who preferred the more traditional blues stylings, he would help blur the line between contemporary blues and rock and roll, paving the way for the white youth of America — many of whom were caught up in the drama of the Civil Rights Movement — to discover ‘black’ music, the tendrils reaching over the Atlantic.

Wolf and many bluesmen of his generation had a far-reaching musical influence and inspiration that is still felt today. The hard-hitting blues rock of “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Spoonful” had been recent hits overseas, precipitating his role as headliner in the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. Wolf’s 1964 visit to England (along with Sonny Boy and Willie Dixon) was timely, and coincided with the emerging British blues/rock scene. One can envision the three blues royalty, surrounded by their loyal followers, with future luminaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page paying homage at their feet, completely in thrall to the power of the new blues.

By the late sixties we would see the rise of several musicians (both in America and England) covering or emulating versions of songs first played by Wolf. The Doors, Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream were but a handful of the new bands wearing their musical roots/influence on their sleeves, and others, such as Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), that began by imitating Wolf’s distinctive howl/growl, would later develop unique musical forms and styles that always harkened back to their blues roots but took it on a cosmic ride.

Even twenty years after his death, around the time I received that cassette tape, Wolf’s influence was taking on new dimensions. Most notably was Little Axe’s genre-defying 1994 release The Wolf that House Built — basically a Howlin’ Wolf tribute– which blended Wolf’s singing/speaking with various dub/reggae elements. The 1980s/90s had seen an explosion of hip-hop, beautifully combining sampled or played jazz and funk with rap, but Little Axe’s album stood out for me with its blues roots and incorporation of various styles. The album became an underground favourite, unsuccessful in the mainstream charts, and we would not hear anything similar until Moby’s timely 1999 smash Play again fused blues/sampling/electronics (I guess it took a pasty white boy to make the blues hip/popular and safe for the mainstream dance and pop scene).

The twenty-first century will certainly reveal new forms of influence and development, and perhaps the recent Chess Records release of Wolf’s complete masters from 1951-1960 — with its inclusion of many previously unreleased or impossible to find tracks — will inspire a budding or existing musician afresh. Granted, the heavy price tag (and the fact that it only covers up to 1960, thus we must pay for the next installment eventually), even with its four discs, the Complete Masters is not as good a deal as the beautifully presented three disc Chess Box which is a better coverage to the whole oeuvre (serious fans will be unable to resist the new Complete Masters).

Like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf also participated in the ‘sold my soul to the Devil blues myth’ — a powerful idea in the minds of those who held combined beliefs in Christianity and African “hoodoo”, though in the secular sense it is also a powerful metaphor for the price individuals pay for success or even basic livelihood — and his son Floyd later retold one of these tales:

“It was a scary story … Said when he first learned how to play the guitar … this old man told him to go to this cemetery and sit on this grave of somebody that he knew. And after twelve o’clock, somebody goin’ to to come there and learn him how to play the guitar … said he must’ve drank half a gallon of that old corn whiskey … He was just so nervous … after twelve o’clock, something walked up to him — something like … he ain’t never seen in his life — and took the guitar out of his hands and and chorded that guitar … and told him, ‘Play!’ And said he played that guitar just like he had been playin’ for twenty years.”

Though such fictions are mainly the stuff to frighten young children in the night, they demonstrate the self-creation process witnessed in many artists struggling with their own identities as human beings and musicians. Wolf was no different in that respect, such as in “Wolf Talks #2” where we have an ear to the legend-making, he reveals that his grandfather first told him the story of the bad wolf to scare/deter the three-year old from any “devilment” or accidentally killing “some of [his] mother’s chickens”, then the family calling him Wolf for all sorts of reasons or just simply to tease him so the name finally stuck. Considering that his other nickname later was Foots/Big Foot due to his size 14 feet, Howlin’ Wolf (the full moniker likely taken from a popular blues song of the time) was a much better calling card for a bluesman, conjuring up archetypal imagery that fits the man and his music perfectly — one who was essentially a lone wolf howling, or crying, at the moonlight.

Rodrigo P. Yanez

Rodrigo Pablo Yanez is an avid typewriter collector, audiophile and doctoral candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. His interests include Restoration/Eighteenth Century Literature, Spatial Theory and Literary Cartography/Geography, Digital Humanities, and Game Studies.

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