By Mark Guarino
Chester Arthur Burnett would not be forgotten if you met him. His bulk included a six-foot-three frame, almost 300 pounds and a size 16 shoe.
He struck fear and awe in almost everyone who came across him the first time. But to those who only knew him through his music, he was no less a force to be reckoned with. As Howlin’ Wolf, Burnett sang of evil with a gravelly, dark voice that sounded summoned from another world. Sam Phillips, the Sun label president who first recorded him in 1951, said, when hearing Wolf sing for the first time, he thought, “this is where the soul of man never dies.”
Had he not died of a brain tumor in 1976, Wolf would have turned 90 on Thursday. To mark the occasion, his long-time lead guitarist and protégé Hubert Sumlin will lead a tribute set that night at the Chicago Blues Festival, accompanied by Levon Helm of The Band and David Johanson of the New York Dolls. Wolf’s former bandmates like Eddie and Vann Shaw and Sam Lay play individual sets during the day. There’s also a book, “Moanin’ At Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf” (Pantheon), in stores this week, his first definitive biography.
When set against “Can’t Be Satisfied” (Little, Brown), Robert Gordon’s excellent biography of Wolf’s rival and friend Muddy Waters published two years ago, “Moanin’ At Midnight” falters. Unlike Gordon who uses Waters’ life as a conduit to tell the story of the black migration from plantation life to industrial centers like Chicago, co-writers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman fail to place Wolf in any context. It is a dry, straightforward narrative strung together with laundry lists of quotes. At times, it feels too patched, with too heavy of a reliance on peripheral figures from Wolf’s story, and background details often repeated with irritating inconsistencies — they document the 1815 Club opening in 1975, then two paragraphs down say Wolf played there in 1974.
Still, the book amply provides story after story of Wolf’s brutal and often contradictory life. Almost 30 years after his death, the singles he recorded for Chess between 1954 and 1973 (“Killing Floor,” “Evil,” “The Red Rooster”) remain the cream of Chicago’s golden blues era. Next to Waters, he stands as the period’s towering figure who transcended the genre and whose art was invoking a guttural purity that remains chilling to this day.
The most significant revelation of the book is how Wolf’s might was entirely self-generated. In stark detail, the writers reveal how Wolf grew up a tormented and unwanted boy, suffering rejection from his mother, physical abuse from his great uncle and shattering poverty, a combination of factors that shadowed his adult life up to his death.
Wolf was born in White Station, Mississippi, a town so near the brink of starvation a committee was formed to write to the president begging for relief. Already a gentle giant as a child, he discovered the strength of his powerful hands after he couldn’t pet his grandmother’s chicks without squeezing them to death. To scare him off, his grandfather told him wolves would get him, and in little time, he earned his nickname as one of the pack.
The story sets the tone of Wolf’s life. He felt condemned to sing the blues and was well aware of its consequences, especially in the rural South where blues singers like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, both Wolf mentors, were considered practitioners of the devil. For that reason, Wolf would never be accepted by his mother, a deeply religious woman touched by mental illness. His great uncle, a sharecropper who raised him, humiliated and beat him with a bullwhip, creating a situation where Wolf was forced to escape and reinvent himself.
After a bout in the army where he received a discharge after a nervous breakdown, Wolf settled in West Memphis in 1948 where he quickly became a star, known for not just singing the songs but physicalizing them as well. While Waters’ bandleader style was smooth and controlled, Wolf was unpredictable and sexually unkempt, known for throwing himself on the floor, crawling from end to end and imbuing a eroticism in his music that bordered between profane and corny. He recorded for two labels, Sun and Modern, hosted a popular radio show and eventually secured an audience in the South that never dissipated, even when the modern soul sounds of Stax and Motown became the music of choice of black audiences in the mid-‘60s.
By the time he made it to Chicago in 1953, Wolf was 39, had already enjoyed the fruits of his labors and was well aware of what it took to be a professional in the bigger market. “I had a $4,000 car and $3,900 in my pocket. I’m the onliest one drove out of the South like a gentleman,” he said.
Wolf’s insistent professionalism drove him. He forced his rotating band of Chicago musicians to wear formalwear, forbid them to drink or chase women on the job and if they did, he made it well known he packed a gun. In the coming years, Wolf played the role of a mentor to his musicians, many of them young enough to be his sons. A destitute childhood forced him to become a radical when it came to the books, taking taxes and social security out of his band’s wages so they could draw unemployment in case anything happened to him.
The book recounts endless stories of Wolf’s insistent morality lessons, many of them leading to brawls on the road. His most frequent sparring partner was Sumlin, who first met Wolf when he was a teenager. Their on-again, off-again relationship was the deepest partnership Wolf had outside his marriage.
Like Waters, Wolf became an international star once British rock royalty went to him as a root source for their music. It was a reluctant relationship. Although he was courted by and made an album with young bucks like Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and members of the Rolling Stones, he reeled at the imbalance. He ended up suing Chess for music he felt he earned and also Led Zeppelin who appropriated his music for “The Lemon Song.” When the Rolling Stones played Chicago in 1975, they accepted an invitation to his house for a big meal but only half the band showed up — just Ron Wood and Bill Wyman — and by then, it was long past dinner time and you could guess it wasn’t just the food that turned cold.
By the end, Wolf’s influence, reputation and music was larger than life, even though he was not. His kidneys were failing and he suffered a string of heart attacks, one of them prompted by the sight of Alice Cooper’s prop guillotine backstage when he had the misfortune of opening for the shock rocker. In his later years, he was driven by a punishing tour schedule and haunted by his mother, who he barely knew. The most heartbreaking story in the book is when he encountered her by chance in 1971. After hugging her and slipping a $500 bill in her pocket, she tore away and told him she didn’t want his “dirty old money” he earned for playing “them dirty blues.” “Wolf cried all the way to Memphis,” Sumlin said. When Wolf was on his deathbed, his mother would not even come to the phone to say goodbye.
The book provides an excellent discography that lists, in painstaking detail, the many reissues of his music, starting with his days on Sun. Although you can hear his dark wail in the current garage blues of bands like the White Stripes, Wolf remains best remembered by his classic recordings. They illustrate not just his intense emotional artistry but the struggle that makes them continue to howl.