I recently finished reading the biography “Howlin Wolf: Moanin’ at Midnight” and I wanted to write a few thoughts about it, as I did with Up Jumped the Devil.
What a life! Overall I really enjoyed the book. It was extremely detailed and thorough with every recording session and tour. Many of the individual gig stories had incredible commentary from band and audience members. The insight into the man – as a man and performer – was amazing. While I had listened to a lot of his music, I had little insight into Howlin’ Wolf the performer and his crazy stage antics. Relative to what I actually knew about the man, aside from the music, I learned more from this biography than perhaps any other. It’s similar to the Zappa biography for me int hat regard.
The book also covered all the musicians that played with the Wolf, especially long-timers like the legendary Hubert Sumlin and Sam Lay. There are tons of quotes and interviews throughout his long career, and it painted a very detailed picture of each stage of his life.
That said, the detail did make the book feel a bit tedious at times. I actually liked that it covered the lineups and recording dates, and despite the detail never wanted to put it down. It required some patience to get through despite its very reasonable 325 pages. For fans of blues or its offsprings like blues/rock, it’s a must-read. I loved that it called out things to notice in particular songs (like a short drum solo in one of the early Chess songs, some of Hubert Sumlin’s particular guitar solos, etc). For fans of music and live performance, highly recommended. For more casual music fans, it’s good and recommended but with that caveat.
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, so I won’t outline too many here, but there were many, many incredible stories of Howlin’ Wolf’s days on the road.
One of my favorite, though a bit sad, stories is a gig in which Sam Lay was playing drums. Sam had a loaded pistol in his pocket and got a little too exuberant with his drumming… and consequently blew off one of his testicles! Incredible.
The Wolf was a strict bandleader, and would fine his musicians for showing up late, or not dressing in uniform (black slacks, white shirt). One of his drummers wore different pants – still black, and pretty close – but not right. If I remember, his uniform ones got ripped or stained shortly before the gig. He did the whole show and the Wolf didn’t say anything. Afterwards, he said something like “well, you made $12.50 on the gig, but I have to fine you $10 for not wearing your uniform.” the drummer pulled out his pistol and got his money. Tales of guns and fighting about. It was a different, and rougher, time.
Chester Burnett’s was a tale of incredible perseverance. As with many blues artists that grew up in the South in the early 20th century, life was hard. His father left. When he was just a child, not even a teenager, his own mother threw him out of his out. He had to walk – with no shoes – miles to a relative’s or relation’s house. His new father was very strict and harsh, and eventually even that home didn’t last. After accidentally killing a prized and valuable pig owned by his new father, he left for good to be out on his own rather than face the coming beating. He overcame his difficult childhood through strength, will, and intelligence.
I always knew Howlin’ Wolf as a singer and harp player. I didn’t realize how much he played guitar, especially early on. Once he got to Chicago and started relying on Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin and others, he didn’t play as much – but he was still a great guitar player with a long history on the instrument. This is a part of his career I need to listen more to.
I had no idea that Howlin’ Wolf played with Charlie Patton, who in many ways was a mentor. He played with many of the delta greats and was just as much a bridge between the delta blues and Chicago blues as Muddy Waters. I knew more about Muddy Waters’ delta blues history from his acoustic recordings. I always associated the Wolf with Chicago blues. The great migration from the Southern Delta to Chicago is well known in this history of the blues, but what I didn’t realize is that Howlin’ Wolf himself traces that entire route!
I also had no idea that the Wolf was somewhat “discovered” by Sam Phillips, and did his first recordings for him. It was only after building success in Memphis that he was approached by Chess in Chicago and moved up there for bigger fame and fortune. There are a lot of quotes from Sam Phillips, and he strongly believed in the Wolf.
King of Chicago
Once the Wolf moved to Chicago, he became one of the two “kings of the hill” along with Muddy Waters. Their relationship was more complex than I realized. They were very different people, with very different approaches to leading their bands, despite both being figureheads of Chicago blues and having similar paths of moving north after early success in the south. They approached their bands differently, and they approached Chess differently. Muddy Waters – according to the book – was much more inclined to do what the Chess brothers asked him to do. Howlin’ Wolf had a much stronger opinion, or was more vocal, about what he wanted to do with his music. He pushed back more. He certainly expressed this within his band of directing how he wanted things to be played. While to me his music seems more loose and rough, it was a result of a very clear direction.
I also gained a huge respect for Howlin’ Wolf’s business savvy. It was and still is almost unheard of, but he pain his musicians’ Social Security so that they could have a better future. He was extremely diligent in the monetary aspect of the music business. While he was a strict bandleader, almost without exception his musicians grew to love his approach.
Later in the Wolf’s life, it was stunning how many health problems he overcame while still gigging right up to the end. For example, he would go in for dialysis 3 times per week, and time it so that he could “recover” while travelling to gigs. Then he’d give 110% on the gig.