That would be in 1963 on his home turf, Big Duke’s Club on Chicago’s West Side, and later that same year at the Newport Folk Festival. The last time I saw him was at the Palace in San Diego in the late ’60s. Wolf was a big Mississippi blues singer in the traditional of Charlie Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson but he had enough of Westside Chicago in him (and a bit of Memphis) to have erased submission or compromise, but not enough that he ever entirely got rid of his country roots. He never became the bi-cultural urbanized artist that his contemporary Muddy Waters became. He remained what his name implied: a voice from the backwoods, casting incantations to a country sky.
The sleeve of his first long-play record for the Chess label, though simple and obvious enough, got it right: a plainly drawn wolf howling to a chilly moon. I knew Wolf’s records well. I think the first Chicago blues record I ever bought was a 78 rpm Recording of Wolf’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World” backed with “Poor Boy” in a San Diego thrift store in about 1957. After that I acquired everything I could get my hands on: earlier records and subsequent ones. It strikes me as quite sensible because Wolf’s singles were something quite special in their context. He was almost without competitors; the bluesman who went on to turning out great singles, not albums, but singles in the true commercial tradition. Not that they were true commercial successes. I don’t think that I ever bought records in those days because they were commercial successes. I’d hear a record by an artist I liked and then I had to have every record by that artist. With Wolf I was seldom disappointed. His records were fashioned for a particular market not yet affected by white patronage, and they avoided all the pitfalls of the business: repetitive followups, capitulations to dance fads, and so on. What was most remarkable was that they combined an extraordinary traditionalism—Deep South imagery, old time blues motifs and melodies… with a loud modernity of arrangement.
For a few years, Wolf turned out glorious records almost automatically. The series began about the time of “Smokestack Lightning” in 1956 and carried on to the end of the decade with such jewels as “The Natchez Burning” and “Who’s Been Talking.” Then, in 1960, they got even better. Around 1960-1962 Wolf hung a chain around his neck of unwinkingly brilliant gems like “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “Built for Comfort,” “Spoonful,” “The Red Rooster,” and “Killin’ Floor.” At this point I could cite a whole unedited chunk of his discography. Controlled force, a high noise level, and material ideal for one of Wolf’s background and abilities combined in records that scarcely anyone in Chicago could match.
It was with some surprise that I, who had been converted by the Great Folk Scare of the late ’50s heard in 1963 that the very Howlin’ Wolf I had secretly collected was to appear that summer at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. My trip East that year included a stopover in Chicago where the good folks at Jazz Record Mart (still in business) gave me a guided tour of the local blues clubs, including that first viewing of Howlin’ Wolf. I had heard that his stage act was demonstrative in a manner that not every blues fan might find comfortable. And that was sure the case. In familiar surroundings, as well as what must have been an unfamiliar venue at Newport, Wolf hammed it up no end. After a few moments, there was no doubt that what I had heard was almost unbearably true. He leaped around, glared, rolled his eyes, and, in short, he acted the part he took upon himself years before with his nickname, and only a misplaced delicacy would allow one to be offended by it. As acting no doubt, it was broad… Lon Chaney and King Kong rather than Shakespeare. Would you expect anything else?
It was extraordinary stuff for the period. It was loaded with folklore and with references to blues so old as to be folklore themselves. “The Back Door Man,” “The Tail Dragger,” “The Little Red Rooster,” “The Country Sugar Mama”… characters like these had been creeping and strutting and winging there way through the blues for generations. And here they came again, urged on by excellent bands, with lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin outdoing himself with each new record. I often wish there were blues singles appearing now that hit me, there’s no better word for it, the way “Taildragger,” “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy,” or “Goin’ Down Slow” did; or come to that, a little remarked 1962 track, “Do the Do” that sounds inconsiderable, but is a wonderful couple of minutes inside a riot.
By The mid ’60s blues singles were disappearing and Wolf had a new audience but it was an album-attuned one. Wolf was not born to be an album artist. In the next ten years, he yielded to fashions as they arose. Their was an electric album with reverb and feedback; Wolf privately refered to it as “dogshit,” a “London session” one for the Rolling Stones and other British rockers, and even a contemporary “Message to the Young” that is as terrible as it sounds. Only the Live and Cooking at Alice’s Revisited from a 1972 club date with musicians from Wolf’s past was surprisingly righteous.
But the Wolf I like to remember is the Wolf of the mighty singles and uncompromising stage presence. Both affirmed the angry maelstrom at the heart of the blues and that at a time when talk is so often of the mellow and laid-back qualities of the music. CHESTER BURNETT: “The Howlin’ Wolf” 1910-1976 is an affirmation to be respected and remembered.