Bukka White

The Wolf at the Door

Ater 25 years in the same apartment, I moved on to new digs this year. It was time and all of the post-move changes seem to have worked out, and I am very thankful for that. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to move too far and it wasn’t a tedious or complicated process, but, somehow, somewhere, I lost a Howlin’ Wolf compilation that I had and I don’t have it digitally. Bummer! I have no Howlin’ Wolf on my person at the moment. I am Wolf-less. I haven’t been Wolf-less in years and the stuff I see on the iTunes store doesn’t look that great. It is incomplete. This is not a good thing.

Way, way back in 2011 (WOW!) I wrote this paragraph in a post on the illustrious Booker ‘Bukka’ White:

“I’ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.”

That’s a pretty happening paragraph. Damn! I’m good. The same feelings I have for Bukka and his acoustic blues music, I have always had for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and his gnarly, snarly, electric blues. Yea, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and all of the rest were great. No doubt. Willie Dixon, of course, was the premiere songwriter of them all. He was also an awesome bass player and over the years played with pretty much everybody. But Wolf’s brand of blues and his awesome presence, live or on record, cannot be beat. He towers over other performers by a mile and this is why he was also a huge influence and a big favorite of people like Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Brian Jones and his little band from Britain, The Rolling Stones.

Wolf was a big dude — 6 foot 3, 300 lbs. and his brand of blues was dangerous and menacing…’cause even when he was sitting down wearing accountant glasses he still looked menacing. Like Bukka White he sang about the very dangerous things he knew about: evil, riding trains, liquor, fights, women, more fighting, life, and more women. His best songs, whether original or not, are my favorite versions of those songs: Smokestack Lightning, Sittin’ On Top of the World, Evil, Moanin’ at Midnight, Wang Dang Doodle, Killing Floor, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, How Many More Years, and I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline). All of these tunes featured Wolf’s booming, bassy, bad-ass testifying shouts, whoops, snarls and, yelps front and center, while his guitar, slide guitar and harmonica punched, jabbed, accented and punctuated his backing band’s steady rolling rhythm. This produced a beautiful and sometimes terrifying musical atmosphere as Wolf’s. It was, as legendary producer Sam Phillips recalled, “This is where the soul of man never dies.” His voice was as big as the country; too big to be contained by music hall, bar or the radio. Often imitated, but never equaled, it was an unparalleled instrument gave all of his material an instantly recognizable brand and edge. This version of Smokestack Lightning is a bit different from the recorded version but it illustrates the Howlin’ Wolf’s blues train: the swingin’ kit hits, guitar screams and stabs, piano tinkles, and bass rumble working together simultaneously while Wolf rides the top of the boxcar shouting, moaning and lowing his orgy dream tale of train-riding and woman-loving. [LateEdit: I love the recorded version of this song. It has all of the elements of this live version but is driven by Hubert’s hypnotically repetitive Chicago-by-way-of-the-Delta guitar riff. Definitely serves up the essence of the Howlin’ Wolf sound!]

While Wolf had the showbiz image of the dangerous, fly-by-night, criminal badass, he was actually a very conservative, hard-working and responsible bandleader. Financially he always did well; so well he was able to pay his band better than anyone else and even provided health insurance, which is why he had the best band in the business and players, like guitarist Hubert Sumlin, stuck around for the duration of Wolf’s life and career. It was all about the music, which Wolf gave forty years of his life to before succumbing to various health ailments in 1976. Prior to that he was able to capitalize on the blues revival in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and he taught all of youngsters what roadhouse blues was really all about.

Hubert Sumlin was also a huge part of the Howlin’ Wolf sound and a lot of his licks show up later in stuff like Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song and various Cream covers that everyone has heard a million times. He was the perfect foil for Wolf’s voice, guitar and harmonica sound. Whether the band was on big stages or in small, intimate situations, they always turned it out in great rockin’ rhythm and blues style!

So what am I gonna do? I have to find the complete sides collection somewhere, but no one buys CDs anymore do they? I don’t do the streaming, so I guess I’ll have to go to a store. Holy Cow! I’ll have to work up to this…I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Book Review #2

Two more books from the library! I have some rilly cool things to share: The BB King Treasures and Stochelo Rosenberg (part 1). Both of these coffee-table-esque printed productions are very stylin’ and function as the kind of material I lay out when important and sophisticated people visit. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, I’m New York SASSY and I moved on from Hammer of the Gods a long time ago. But aside from that, both these books are complete and total eye-candy and serve as scrapbooks that detail the lives of two very accomplished musicians. Reading over them puts one smack in the middle of music history and culture and contained within are all kinds of special features that add to the experience. Both were obviously put together with a WHOLE LOTTA LOVE and it shows.

BB King

Riley B. King is a musical institution and The USA is lucky to have him. Over a career spanning 60+ years BB has become a world ambassador and “global musician” of the guitar, influencing some pretty high-powered people along the way and entertaining literally millions of people. The BB King Treasures, which was released to coincide with his 80th birthday, traces his story from very humble beginnings in a Mississippi sharecroppers cabin, through his early love of music and apprenticeship with cousin Bukka White, to his early successes in Memphis radio. It then moves on to the many years of relentless touring and recording. While James Brown might’ve called himself the hardest working man in showbiz, BB just went out and did it, year after year. By the 1960s when British guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page brought the blues back to the United States, BB saw his popularity skyrocket because he WAS the blues and could kill them at The Fillmore playing to a bunch of hippies who were there to see Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. BB and Albert King (no relation but another very influential player) were both revered by white audiences and players alike and enjoyed tremendous success during the late 60s and early 70s.

Year after year BB kept taking his message of music to the people and eventually became a full-blow icon — I mean he’s had an audience with the Pope fer crying out loud. (Supposedly John Paul II played a little guitar himself and wanted BB to show him how to play The Thrill is Gone — but that might’ve been just a rumor). Aside from great writing, this book contains so many cool reproductions of mementos that trace BB’s career — posters, business cards, booking schedules, stickers…neato! There is also a CD that has BB talking about a whole lot of guitar stuff. He relates how he admired Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other players that he heard when he was growing up and how he tried to mimic the guitar bends, slides and chord patterns. He also recalls sitting next to cousin Bukka as he did his thing, but ultimately BB could never reproduce any of it like he heard it. (He illustrates what he’s talking about by singing and picking an acoustic guitar) Listening to the CD it’s obvious ALL of that blues is in BB, but he went and did his own thing with it, took it somewhere else. His vibrato is legendary and his great FEEL gives all of his guitar playing a very human voice — a powerful enough influence that Duane Allman learned all of BB’s licks note for note and John Lennon once said, “I wish I could play guitar like BB King”. John even name-drops BB King in his Dig It jam that showed up on Let It Be. Even after all of the success and world-wide acclaim BB is very humble and cognizant of how he is a part of this long thread of guitar and music and this book serves as a real celebration of all he has accomplished. The combination of the writing, BB’s input, the relaxed feel of the audio interviews and all of the cool little add-ons, give this package a very personal feel and because there is so much here, you can revisit repeatedly without exhausting your interest level.

Stochelo Rosenberg

While Stochelo doesn’t have BB King’s 60 years of history or name recognition, he has established himself as the premier emissary of gypsy jazz throughout the world. Coming from a Manouche gypsy background he is steeped in traditions that date back literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. Stochelo’s book is a great family album, put together with help from Harry Klunder and guitar maker extraordinaire Leo Eimers.

Of course the shadow and presence of the awesome Django Reinhardt is always with Stochelo and all of those who play gypsy jazz. Django was the first world-wide hero of the Manouche community and founded a school and style of music that enjoys great popularity today. The success of Stochelo, his incredible guitar abilities and the wonderful music he and the trio have created has been a very important part of WHY there are so many people listening to and playing the music today. But they always acknowledge and give homage to the master and there is a section in the book devoted to Django. In addition to being a great musician, Django dabbled in painting and favored the female form as subject matter. (Who can blame him!) There are some samples in the book and this is the first time I’ve seen nice reproductions of his work. For over 20 years The Rosenberg Trio has been releasing beautiful discs and completely flooring everyone with their live performances. In addition to Stochelo, the trio features Nou’she, his cousin, one of THE preeminent gypsy rhythm guitarists in the world today and his other cousin, Nonnie an awesome bass player. Because they are all related and have been playing together for so long, TIGHT doesn’t even begin to describe how well they work together. Metal shredders, tube screamers, fingerpickers and technique geeks take notice. The Rosenberg Trio are amazing!

This book is hard to find and maybe impossible to buy now…I don’t know. There were a limited number of copies made. I have # 57. [edit message from co-author Harry Klunder: Hello, for Your information, the book is still on stock, however not so many. Let me know if you are interested, there are about 750 ex. left and they will be presented on the market again next year.Harry Klunder] It comes with one of Stochelo’s guitar picks embedded in the inside front cover, tabs of original music he wrote just for the book, a really insightful interview on his playing technique and equipment preferences and HISTORY. It’s a great presentation of Stochelo’s family and Manouche culture. The Rosenberg Trio was shaped and is sustained by their roots and there are lots of great stories and fantastic pics of family, friends and associates. While Django looms large as Stochelo’s main influence, there were others, much closer to home like his legendary uncle Wasso Grunholz and the well-known and terrifically awesome Fapy Lafertin. There is also a section on Leo Eimers, the guy who makes some of the best Selmer style guitars in the world. It’s obvious Stochelo had a lot to do with the creation of this book because all of the highlights of his life — playing with Stephane Grappelli, success with the Rosenberg Trio and carrying on the proud tradition of Django Reinhardt are contained within. He is also a devoted father and husband and, like BB, just comes across as a real humble, down-to-earth guy, GUITAR GOD, though he may be.

What’s really great about all four of the books I’ve profiled so far is that authors and producers really did a swell job. There isn’t any expense spared to get the story right and make even the tiniest details available to the audience (which I gotta figure includes many guitar players). Anyone in the publishing world will tell you that CONTENT IS KING and what makes these books enjoyable is that at the most basic level, they are great stories told by great communicators about great communicators. All of the extras serve to augment what is already an enjoyable experience for the reader. While I am a great fan and daily participant in the digital publishing landscape, there is always room for printed material, especially 5-star efforts that create an experience that is unique and informative. Both of these books certainly do that and a whole lot more!