[Today: The Wolf struts...]
Everything about Howlin’ Wolf’s musical persona leads to one word: ferocious. The man stood six and a half feet tall, tipped the scales at 300 pounds, and projected a personality even bigger than that. His voice a violent rasp, Wolf’s music is all menacing swagger, without an ounce of the surrender or sorrow that typically tints the blues. The songs he made famous – including ‘Smokestack Lightning’, ‘Wang-Dang-Doodle’ and ‘Back Door Man’ – provided a bedrock foundation for the British Invasion musicians of the mid-60s, most notably The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton-vintage Yardbirds. But shades of Wolf’s gravel voice and unhinged performance have also been echoed by offbeat artists like Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.
In Howlin’ Wolf’s massive hands, a song like ‘Goin Down Slow’ mutates from a pitiful blues into a leering ode to oral sex. ‘Spoonful’ is either a hyper-confident love song or gleeful celebration of drug use. ‘Back Door Man’ is built on sexual bravado that’s still shocking, even 50 years later. ‘Wang-Dang-Doodle’, ‘The Red Rooster’, ‘Shake For Me’ – Howlin’ Wolf’s self-titled 1962 album (also widely known as The Rocking Chair Album for its cover shot) is filled to the brim with sexual metaphors. While young Keith Richards was aping Chuck Berry, a young Mick Jagger was no doubt paying attention to the preening antics of the man who described himself as “300 pounds of joy.”
But Wolf’s offstage personality belied his wild stage presence. Born Chester Arthur Burnett, he was named after the 21st president of the United States, and generally carried himself with a studied reserve that’s totally absent from his music. A dedicated husband and father, Wolf didn’t abuse drugs or alchohol, and conducted his business with enough acumen that he was one of the few bluesmen to get rich off his music. Illiterate into his 40’s, Wolf nonetheless took classes on the side that were aimed at improving his business sense. His profitability ensured that he was able to play with his pick of musicians throughout his career, but one near constant in his band was razor-sharp guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Willie Dixon played bass and wrote many of the songs in Wolf’s repertoire. Wolf himself blew a mean harmonica, when he wasn’t singing like a beast unleashed.
Sounding more patriotic than primal, he once said “Ain’t no better place than the US. This is a free enterprise system. You can get whatever you want in the US.” All that wanting and all that getting is packed into Howlin’ Wolf’s music…
Listen: Goin’ Down Slow
Listen: Back Door Man
Listen: Wang Dang Doodle