Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #4: Howlin' Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf, was a true giant of the blues, a great harmonica player and a commanding, world-class vocalist. I could go on and on about his importance as an artist and his general awesomeness, but I'll just quote Sam Phillips in the liner notes of the indispensable compilation The Chess Box: "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" Talking about almost anyone else, that would be ludicrous hyperbole; for the Wolf, it pretty much covers it.

Here's a 1964 performance of what's maybe the quintessential Howlin' Wolf song, "Smokestack Lightnin'":

Any discussion of Howlin' Wolf should also give credit to his longtime guitarist, Hubert Sumlin (who's still touring today in his late 70s), and Willie Dixon, who wrote many of Wolf's best songs, including "I Ain't Superstitious" and the one in this video, "Evil." (I'm pretty sure that's Sumlin on guitar, but there isn't a clear view of his face):

From the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, here's "Meet Me In The Bottom," and you can go ahead and make your own jokes about that title:

From the same session, here's "How Many More Years":

Wolf was a very large, physically imposing man (he didn't have a song called "300 Pounds Of Joy" for nothing), and could be quite a tornado on stage. There's a story in Robert Palmer's book Deep Blues (also repeated in the Chess Box notes, which is where I first heard it) about him literally climbing the curtains during the closing number of one show and finishing the song while hanging from the ceiling, at age 55. (Offstage, he wasn't nearly so wild. He wasn't a drinker, and approached the business of music with great seriousness. Unlike many of the Delta expatriates who redefined blues music in 1950s Chicago, Wolf had saved up enough money to buy his own car to make the journey rather than going by train.) Here's a live version of "Highway 49" (apparently on YouTube as a promotion for the DVD Howlin' Wolf In Concert 1970). At 10 minutes, it's overlong and repetitive, but I like the way it shows Wolf's stage presence, a combination of imposing roars and easygoing goofiness:


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