Howlin' Wolf
A Personal Recollection

photo: Brian Smith

by Terry Sexton

In the dark pre-digital world of 1967, I purchased (the price was $2.50) a standard 10-hole Hohner Marine Band (key of C) to help me tune the cheap guitar I was trying to teach myself to play.

Janis Joplin, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the new duet of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton pulsed through transistor radios, Jim Lonborg faced Julian Javier in the World Series, Vietnam exploded, and, after my paper route, I kept trying to get a "D" chord to sound right.

I kept struggling between, and sometimes with, schoolwork and that inevitable series of part-time teenage employments with a succession of guitars that would constantly settle into a tuning of their own making. In 1969 I purchased another harmonica (key of G - $4.75), we moved to Wisconsin, and I, through an oscillation of very tangential incidents, was introduced and began listening to some fine exponents of a style of music called the blues.

 An early high school blues hero was Lightnin' Hopkins. Late evenings and later weekend nights, I would take the vinyl discs three doors down the street, my friend and I would seclude ourselves in his basement, open some cold bottles of 7-Up, and become very serious and attentive to what Lightnin' said and the ways he would musically phrase each piece. Having by this time been conditioned to tangential incidents, it, therefore, did not surprise me when, in a few subsequent years, I met Townes Van Zandt in a Nashville hotel bar only to discover that he, too, was not only a fan of Lightnin' Hopkins, but a personal friend.

 College arrived, I had several more harmonicas, found second position (cross harp) after reading Tony Glover's Blues Harp book, and began performing with a small blues/rock combo. And as surely as the flatted fifth follows the flatted third, I would observe simple conversations between blues fans inevitably escalate into debates, with every originally non-involved bystander freely and emotionally tendering opinions, as to who was the best - Muddy or the Wolf?

 On March 17, 1973, I was one week into my twenties and this Irish kid treated himself to a Muddy Waters performance at a Milwaukee club called Teddy's on Farwell Avenue. Muddy, by this time, had developed a presentation consisting of two sets that followed a very specific outline. The band would play for about half an hour and then Muddy would be introduced, he'd play three tunes and leave, and the band would close the set with another number. I don't care how good the band was (and they were great), I wanted to see and hear more of Mr. Morganfield.

I was fortunate to catch Muddy a few more times over the next few years, and each time, the performance followed the same map. However, he was interesting. Band members changed, but the music did not. It fitted the lounge. It drifted into corners and settled into the evening. It was very tangible. Muddy did get intense - "She's 19," "Got My Mojo Working," "Mannish Boy" - but the musical expression was always under strict control, contained. The Wolf's music chased you into corners and demanded from you the stamina to attempt an accommodation of the energy springing at you from the stage.

I had made my first observation of the Wolf a few years earlier at an outdoor blues fest at Milwaukee's State Fair Park in the late summer of either 1970 or '71. He was wearing a short-sleeve pink shirt with brown slacks and his right forearm was wrapped in gauze bandages. He performed about 5 o'clock that evening in the bright haze of a setting sun that flamed the edges of approaching thunderstorm clouds. The band played one number and then the Wolf took over. He stalked around the makeshift flatbed truck stage on some numbers, and when he got tired he would deliver a song seated on a guitar amp. It lasted an hour. He didn't say much between songs, he did glare at us a few times. I had never seen anything like it. The impression was that of watching a caged, defiant, and very proud beast. I began purchasing every Wolf record I could find. Some older blues enthusiasts clued me into the power of the Wolf's performances in the '50's and '60's.

 I saw him again in Milwaukee at Teddy's on Thanksgiving Day night in 1974. I had started to assemble a collection of autographed harmonicas (I take an old blown-out Marine Band and a nail to performances and get players to scratch their names across the front of the wooden comb - I have an "MW" from Muddy Waters, Musselwhite, Carey Bell Harrington, John Hammond Junior, to drop a name or four) and this night I was hoping to get the Wolf to scratch. I got there early, before the place could fill up, and waited. I listened as a bartender told a waitress about how he had delivered a plate of Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings to the Wolf's motel room that afternoon. Apparently, the dialysis treatment the Wolf had received the previous day made him tired.

The band arrived and I hopped off the barstool and sort of fell in with their procession to the back. I looked up at a weary Wolf and asked if he would sign my harmonica. His chin rested on his chest and he muttered, "Come on back." I accompanied the Wolf past the bouncer to a small dimly lit back room. Without removing his topcoat, the Wolf sighed down into a wooden chair by a small card table.

 As I drew forth the harp and nail I suddenly realized that we - the Wolf and myself - were alone in this room. The harmonica disappeared into his massive hands and I started to perspire. I had never before, or since, experienced such a thorough awe. He quietly scratched his name in the wood and I nervously blurted, "How did you get your name?" The trove of information this man possessed about music and travel and other international musicians, and all I could think of to ask was, "How did you get your name?"!

 He didn't look up, somewhere in a lengthy exhale he quietly muttered, "That's a long story, son." The words ended, but the breath continued, slowly and audibly, to flow out of that still massive frame. He completed the task, placed the harp and nail in front of me, and sat, chin on chest, in the silence of that little room. I gathered in my new treasure, stood, and thanked him. He didn't move or speak as I shakily walked back out past the stage area to the bar.

An hour later, the band cranked into the opening number. When it was completed, the Wolf was introduced and he slowly ambled to center stage and heaved his body down into a chair. Guitarist Hubert Sumlin with Eddie Shaw on the sax started to grind into the next number and the Wolf's eyes started to gleam. During the second set, some guy at the bar would scream out "I Walked All the Way from Dallas" between the Wolf's numbers. After the fourth shout the Wolf muttered, "We better do this, this son of a bitch 'bout to drive me crazy!" And during the number he stood and waded into and towered above the collection of dancing, spinning, and undulating kids in front of the stage.

He took full possession of the energy of the music and did not relinquish it over the two and a half-hours of what turned into an exemplary model of the power the blues can serve. Several hundred people witnessed and responded to that power.

 I saw him one more time, a few months later, 1975, in his lair in Chicago. It was a brutally cold late January night. My friend's Volkswagen would run, so Bill and I headed south from Kenosha, WI to Eddie Shaw's place at 1815 West Roosevelt. It was a good-sized room and already crowed by the time we arrived. Except for an Asian student from the nearby University of Chicago campus, Bill and I were the only other light-skinned patrons that evening.

"You boys here to see Wolf?" an older lady inquired. We affirmed her suspicion and she smiled, "You boys gonna enjoy yourselves. Make yourselves to home." We walked down to the end of the bar nearest the stage and ordered our beer. The Wolf came out of the back and sat down next to us. He looked in relatively good shape and spirits as the bartender tossed a little bag of Cheetos on the bartop for him. The Wolf opened the bag and started to munch. The bartender then placed a glass of Coke in front of him as I somehow found some courage and began to ask Wolf about the development of his music and influences. He was very gracious and talkative. Hubert walked up to the Wolf and told him everyone was ready. "Thank god!" the Wolf winked, "This young man about to ask my ears off!"

The next few hours were like a dream. The Wolf looked and sounded strong. During one tune he stood and dangled the microphone between his legs as a waitress walked past. He even played guitar on a few numbers. Wolf and Hubert made a point of talking about the blues to us during the break. When we got back to our town at four in the morning we were both still so wound into the performance we hit an all-night diner, downed coffee, and recounted for each other impressions of the experience.

 It was hard to believe that within a year he would be gone.

 It's hard to explain the sensation of the presence of the man to people who never saw him. The reason for this is, quite simply, the Wolf cannot be compared to anyone. I think the closest we can get to just a hint of the power of a Wolf performance was captured by Alan Lomax's cameras after hours at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, now available as part of the video entitled Devil Got My Woman.

And, thankfully, we still have the recordings. I purchased a new Hohner Blues Harp (key of A - $17.99) over this Christmas season and began breaking in the bass reeds last night by playing along with "Smokestack Lightning."

January 10, 2001 - it marks the 25th anniversary of his death.

I am more than 25 years from my old paper route, war remains in the world, drivel passes as pop music, my guitar stays in tune a little longer now, and I still have a harmonica on which a mythical figure scratched the words "Howlin Wolf."