Get to Know 'Em – Howlin' Wolf

I’m going to start doing a regular blog profiling the artists who inspire me. For my first one, I’m profiling Howlin’ Wolf whom we pay tribute to every year with our annual birthday tribute show. In 2013 it will be at Lee’s Liquor Lounge on Saturday, June 8th.

Howlin’ Wolf sits up with Led Zeppelin as my two favorite artists of all time. He was one of the most prominent figures in the Chicago electric blues scene that emerged in the 1950’s, along with Little Walter and Muddy Waters. He was a giant of a man, variously reported to be 6’3” or 6’6” tall and weighing around 300 pounds and had a huge, raspy voice to match. He was known primarily as a vocalist and harmonica player but also played a mean slide guitar. His recording career spanned from 1951 until 1973.

He was born and raised in Mississippi and in his youth was an associate of legendary Delta bluesmen Charley Patten, Son House, and Robert Johnson though he was never recorded during this period unlike his friends. He later moved to Memphis where he had a radio show and began his recording career at Sun Studio. ¬†Sam Phillips went so far as to call Howlin’ Wolf the greatest artist to ever record for him – a stable that included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It has been suggested that his unique sound party developed through his blues band jamming with Carl Perkins’ country band at the radio station when both bands would sometimes be there at the same time. And conversely that was said also to have helped develop Perkins’ rockabilly style.

Chess Records then signed him and brought him to Chicago in 1954 where he spent the rest of his life and had his greatest success. He eventually died in 1976 at age 66 and is remembered as an astute businessman, unlike most of his contemporaries, in addition to being an amazing performer. Also of note, his band contained legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin and piano player Otis Spann – both my favorite guitar player and piano player of all time and guys who were hugely influential in their own right.

He was a hero to many in the British rock & roll scene in the early 60’s and his songs have been frequently covered. Some of his best known classics include Smokestack Lighting, Spoonful, Little Red Rooster, and Wang Dang Doodle. Smokestack Lighting contains one of the most iconic guitar riffs ever recorded, played by Sumlin. Wolf’s music was notable in that it crossed many musical boundaries and rarely stayed within the usual confines of blues music. Of all the blues artists I’ve ever listened to, Wolf’s music has the most variety and is at times the most catchy and other times the most raw and primal. I could never get tired of listening to Howlin’ Wolf both for the songs and for the performers playing them.

Here is my favorite Howlin’ Wolf song, which also resides solidly as one of my all time favorite songs, Moanin’ at Midnight. It’s just so raw and has such a great, simple guitar riff. It was recorded in 1951 at Sun Studio and features Willie Johnson on guitar as this preceded Sumlin joining the band.

Here’s some footage of him performing another favorite, Shake for Me

And finally here’s footage from Wolf’s only TV¬†appearance in 1965, on the program Shindig. The Rolling Stones refused to perform unless Wolf was also invited

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