Awesome Men Throughout History: Howlin’ Wolf
I don’t think it needs to be said that old blues guitarists are the coolest people on Earth, but they are. Maybe it’s because they can make three chords and a very predictable set of lyrics sound awesome with what seems like no effort. Maybe it’s because a lot of them lived very difficult, unstable lives, and if they live to be old, they have plenty of knowledge and wisdom to pass along, and they’re good at putting things in perspective.
Either way, there haven’t been many people cooler than Howlin’ Wolf, one of the pioneers of electric blues. Listening to his music makes you cooler. Really. It’s like the second “Killing Floor” starts, you’re wearing sunglasses indoors and your clothes fit better.
Howlin’ Wolf is this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, in case you hadn’t made the connection yet.
Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, was a big dude—6’3” and around 275 pounds—who was thrown out of the house by his insanely religious mother and grew up on his father’s farm, performing grueling manual labor as he learned how to play guitar and started performing throughout the Mississippi Delta. He was inducted into the Army, but was discharged early, as military life was a bit too rigid and structured for him.
Beyond his physical size, Wolf stood out because of his big, booming voice and attempted yodeling that sounded more like a howl than anything else. He had a commanding presence on stage, and his music had a funkiness to it that was decades ahead of its time. Sam Phillips, who owned Sun Records, said that Wolf’s music marked the point “where the soul of man never dies.” High praise indeed.
The main reason for this was because Wolf, unlike most other bluesmen, was smart with his money and didn’t spend it all on hookers and drugs. Because of this, he had his pick of the best musicians around because not only did he pay them well, and on time, he withheld unemployment insurance and Social Security, and even offered health insurance. That’s better than a lot of jobs now, let alone touring musician gigs in the 1950s.
But even with all that, he could never get through to his mother. She turned him away from her house when he came to visit during the peak of his success, and claimed that his money came from playing the “Devil’s music.”
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pieces of Howlin’ Wolf’s devil music, the aforementioned “Killing Floor.”
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.