Harmonica

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.