OA: Rock Cesario Column April 17, 2009
Howlin’ Wolf knew the blues best because he lived the blues
Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, in my opinion was and still is the most dynamic blues performer the genre has ever seen.
I read about Howlin’ Wolf most recently in Ted Gioia’s 2008 book “Delta Blues,” and I listened to several of his recordings. However, until I purchased the DVD “The Howlin’ Wolf Story: The Secret History of Rock and Roll,” I had never watched him perform.
Watching him perform gave me goose bumps. If that has happened to you, then you know what I mean. Howlin’ Wolf truly was an incredibly captivating performer.
The DVD opens with Wolf talking about the blues while the opening riffs to one of his greatest songs, “How Many More Years,” play in the background.
Wolf says, “Well, I was broke when I was born. That’s why I’m howling. We talk about the life of a human being and how they lived. A lot of people ask me what is the blues? So I am going to tell you! When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay the house rent, then you really got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay the house rent and buy food, then you damn sure got the blues. When you ain’t got no money, then you are thinking evil, and when you are thinking evil, you got the blues!”
Chester Arthur Burnett was born in June 1910 to a sharecropper father and a mother who was a maid and a cook. Wolf’s parents divorced when he was
1 year old and he lived with his mother until she kicked him out before he was 10, according to “Delta Blues” and “The Howlin’ Wolf Story.”
He then walked several miles to an uncle’s house over frozen ground on a very cold night.
Because he had no shoes, he tied gunny sacks around his feet. That uncle was very abusive to Wolf and he escaped from him at the age of 13 and was reunited with his father.
He worked as a laborer for his father for several years. Then one night around the mid-1920s, Howlin’ Wolf first heard the legendary Charlie Patton at neighboring Dockery’s Plantation.
After that meeting Wolf would continually bug Patton to teach him guitar licks. Patton was without question the artist that influenced Howlin’ Wolf the most.
In mid-1951 Howlin’ Wolf showed up at Memphis Recording Service for a session that would produce two of his biggest hits: “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years.”
Sam Phillips, a recording producer and owner of Sun Records, had this to say in “Delta Blues” about those sessions: “I’ll tell you the greatest thing you could see to this day would be
Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what it would be worth to see the fervor in that man’s face when he sang ... How different, how good?”
On the DVD, Phillips said Wolf had the most talent of all the artists he had worked with.
That’s amazing when you consider those artists included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
I have barely scratched the surface on Howlin’ Wolf, so please stay tuned for more columns on this incredible musician.