Howling in the moonlight

By Sergio Ariza

They say that sometimes life imitates art, so in the case of Howlin' Wolf we could say that his life was a long blues with a lot of art and, incredibly, a happy ending. After all the possible stops: the 'Dickensian' childhood, the plantation, the alcohol, the women and, of course, the music, came recognition. The music that howled in the moonlight was the one thing that brought him out of his misery and turned him into one of the two great pillars of Chicago blues with his rival Muddy Waters. They were responsible for electrifying the Delta blues by planting the most important seed for rock and roll to flourish.  

Chester Arthur Burnett
was born on June 10, 1910 in the middle of the Mississippi delta. When he was one year old his parents separated and he stayed with his mother, a religious fanatic who put him to work almost as soon as he started walking. Later, while he was still a child, she threw him out of the house and Burnett went to live with his uncle. But the remedy was worse than the disease and Wolf would remember him later as "the worst man he met in his life." It is not surprising that at only 13 years old he ran away from home and walked 137 kilometers until he found his father's family, with whom he would finally find a home. There he looked to earn enough money to buy his first guitar, on 10 January, 1928; a date that would remain forever marked in his memory. By then he had earned the nickname of Howlin' Wolf because of the terrifying stories that his grandfather told about wolves before going to sleep that made him scream with terror. He could not have found a better nickname, and after listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson he decided that music was his thing and he began to go to all the places where he could listen to the blues; a type of music that seemed tailor-made for him. For the first time in his life, luck smiled on him, as he was in the best place in the world to soak up blues.

He learned from the man who became known as the father of the Delta blues,
Charley Patton. This was a man who was said to have the voice of a lion and that when he sang he could be heard at half a kilometer without the need for a microphone. It was Patton who taught him to play the guitar with his Stella Grand Concert and also various tricks like playing behind his back or between his legs. If that was his teacher for the six strings, the man who taught him to play the harp was another myth, Sonny Boy Williamson II himself. No wonder that the Wolf made a hole in that mythical scene; his imposing presence (he measured about two meters and weighed 136 kilos) and his incredible voice did the rest. He was the typical man who it was best not to spill his beer. In a short time he was playing with legends like Son House, Willie Brown, his idol Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson himself.

In 1941 his musical career suffered a break when he was called up by the US government. When he left the military, he spent three more years working in the fields, working on a farm. But in 1948 the music called him back and, this time, it was forever. In addition the Wolf did not howl alone, as he formed one of the first electric bands in the history of the blues. In that first group we can highlight the guitar work of Willie Johnson, who had a frantic and aggressive style that fitted perfectly with the music of Wolf. Soon they were joined on the piano by Ike Turner, a man with several connections to the recording studios in Memphis. Thus, in early 1951, Howlin' Wolf's voice was recorded for the first time in the Memphis Recording Service, which the world would later know as Sun. It was Sam Phillips himself who recorded them. In August of that year, the band returned to record one of the most important sessions in the history of popular music. They recorded Moanin' At Midnight and How Many More Years, for many it was the first stone in the great rock & roll castle, Turner's piano was smoking, Johnson's guitar exploded with the first example of distortion but, above all Wolf howled leaving his soul. A star was born, he was 41 years old. Phillips would recognize some time later that Wolf was the artist that impressed him most of all he recorded. Not bad for someone who in the following years would discover Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison or a young man by the name of Elvis Presley.

As in those days Phillips had not created Sun Records he sold the rights to two different companies, the Bihari brothers’ RPM Records in California and Chess Records, the company of the Chess brothers, in Chicago. It was a success for both of them - and both claimed it. In the end however it was Leonard Chess who won the game and in 1952 Wolf traveled to Chicago in his own car and with $ 4,000 in his pocket. As he himself said, he was the only one of the Delta musicians who made the trip north being already successful. When he got there, he contacted an old Mississippi countryman, Muddy Waters, and stayed at his house. But, despite the cordial reception, a rivalry that would become mythical soon emerged. Waters was the undisputed king of Chicago but Wolf did not understand anything about kings other than himself. Their competitiveness would bring about the golden age of electric blues, in a city that had the largest number of talents available, and Waters and Wolf renewed the old rivalry of their mentors, Son House and Charley Patton, in the glorious days of the Delta.

Before leaving for Chicago, Wolf met a young guitarist who fill one time the spot for a drunken Willie Johnson. Once in the city of the wind he sent for him - his name was Hubert Sumlin and would leave an incredible mark in his work, remaining in Wolf's band until his death. There was only really a short period when Wolf was not around, but at that moment Muddy Waters also fell in love with his talent and stole him from Wolf for a few months in 1956. In the end Johnson returned to the fold, Waters paid him three times more but Wolf was among the first who paid his musicians unemployment insurance and social security.

Wolf was a professional leader who demanded that his band dress correctly and did not smoke or drink on stage. But, of course, when climbing up onto it, Wolf erupted, there was no one in the world capable of resisting that force of nature; he used all the tricks of Patton, playing his Kay Thin Twin on his back and so on, but also he had his own style. One of the most outstanding moments was when he picked up a bottle of Coca-Cola, waved it, put it inside his pants, opened the zipper and opened it soaking all the staff. Probably he had in mind the same thing as his friend Robert Johnson when he wrote that "you can squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg." Of course, when the concert was over the beast also rested. And Wolf, who was illiterate until he was 40 years old, ended up studying accounting and business.

The 50s saw classics arrive like Who Will Be Next, Smokestack Lightning, I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), Sitting On Top Of The World and I'm Leaving You. In 1959 Chess released his first LP, Moanin 'At Midnight, which brought together some of his best singles of the decade, like How Many More Years to Evil by Willie Dixon, Chess' lead bassist and composer, who Wolf suspected was giving his best songs to Waters.

Despite this Wolf would live one of his best stages in the early 60's recording several of the best songs by Dixon, pearls such as Spoonful, Back Door Man, Wang-Dang Doodle, The Red Rooster (better known as Little Red Rooster) and I ain’t Superstitious. By the time the decade came to an end they would become absolute classics and would have seen hundreds of covers by groups like Cream, the Doors, Koko Taylor, the Rolling Stones or Jeff Beck Group. Many of them would appear on the legendary LP, Howlin' Wolf (also known as The Rockin' Chair Album), published in 1962 by Chess. A clear candidate for best blues record of all time. Sumlin is the lead guitarist on almost all of them but Wolf takes the instrument to offer a great 'lick' in the slide in The Red Rooster, serving as inspiration for
Brian Jones in the Stones cover.

Of course the great songs kept coming, in 1964, in full explosion of the British Invasion, Wolf recorded the immortal Killing Floor and the work of Sumlin with his Les Paul Goldtop became a tremendous inspiration for
Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Although he no longer played in the studio, Wolf still gave a real show on the road with his guitar, in 1963 he bought a white Stratocaster and possibly took it on his legendary European tour of 1964. On May 26 In 1965, the Stones and Brian Jones would try to give him back part of what they owed him when they insisted that Wolf play Shindig !, on a national television program in the US where they also played. It is priceless to see Brian Jones cut across the announcer by saying "it's better that we shut up, we have Howlin' Wolf on stage!". That same day Wolf gave them another honour by introducing them to Son House. It was like Muddy Waters sang "the blues had a son and they called it rock & roll". In 1966 appeared the third absolutely fundamental album of his career The Real Folk Blues that contained songs recorded between 1958 and 1965.

The innumerable covers of his songs and his good work in business allowed him to live well. So it was time to face the past: while on tour he passed near his hometown and an admirer told him that he knew his mother. Wolf was surprised but went to look for her, at first he hugged her and gave her more than 500 dollars. But she threw his money on the ground and spat. She didn't want to know anything about him, or his dirty money earned by singing the devil's music. The intimidating giant that everyone feared watched his mother leave and his eyes flooded with tears. In spite of everything, the blues were still present in his life...  

Wolf was a giant in the literal and figurative sense, one of those figures who are larger than life. The music that he helped define forever, the blues, left the plantations of the Mississippi Delta and became the engine of the greatest cultural revolution of the twentieth century, rock & roll. He learned from the original legends, Charlie Patton and Son House, and ended up giving lessons to rock stars like the Stones or Clapton. A couple of years before he died he told his friend Hubert Sumlin: "I was born 40 years early. I do not lie, as a young man I pulled mules barefoot in December with snow on the ground and the ground frozen like a rock. Things are getting better over time" Wolf had left the bad times behind and saw a new world open in front of him. That same year he recorded Coon On The Moon, a song in which he said: “You know, they used to call us 'coons,' said we did not have sense. You gonna wake up one morning, and a coon's gonna be the President.” It was not 40 years but 36 when it became a reality, people like Howlin 'Wolf made it possible.