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Sittin’ on top of the world
Getting inside Howlin’ Wolf
Moanin’ at Midnight:The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf
By James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. Pantheon, 397 pages, $26.95.

The blues that came out of the Chess Records studios in Chicago was fermented under wild conditions. It was a music born in recording sessions that sometimes came close to fistfights between owner Leonard Chess and his artists, music sprung up from the ghettos of Chicago’s South and West Sides and the yoke of the Jim Crow South, where life was, to say the least, tough. No wonder recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf sound so untamed even today, 40- to 50-odd years later. Especially the sides by Howlin’ Wolf, whose stage name boasted about the feral nature of his artistry. He had a mile-wide rasp of a voice that sounded like a dump truck pouring out gravel. And in live performances, he yelped like an animal, crawled across stages and up curtains, and popped bug-eyed faces that gave the appearance of barely contained madness.

Wolf is the latest progeny of Chess to become the subject of a biography, trailing Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Time of Muddy Waters (Little, Brown) and Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines’s Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story (Routledge) by two years. For Chess diehards, there’s also Sandra B. Tooz’s Muddy Waters (ECW), from 1997, and Nadine Cohodas’s Chess-label history, 2000’s Spinning Blues into Gold (St. Martin’s).

Of all these, Moanin’ at Midnight is certainly the warmest. It cuts through the mythology of Wolf as a bad-ass monster willing to throw all his six-and-a-half feet and 260 pounds around to find the wounded child within the bear of a man. Nonetheless, Howlin’ Wolf was a gent to be reckoned with. The authors say their research indicates he killed a man before he made his exodus from the South in 1953. But Wolf also spent much of his life trying to fill the hole in his heart caused by his parents’ rejection of him. As the man who was born Chester Burnett sang in one of his songs, he left home at 13, barefoot and crying. Wolf compensated by coddling his adoptive daughters, remaining faithful to his wife, Lillie, and ruling his band with paternalism.

One anecdote from Moanin’ at Midnight illustrates both Wolf’s progressive nature as an employer and the woolly environment of the ’50s and early-’60s Chicago blues scene in which he thrived and became a national hitmaker as well as an indelible part of blues history. "For gigs with Wolf in Chicago, [drummer] Sam [Lay] got $15 a night, but took home $12 after taxes. In 1966, while playing with [harmonica player] James Cotton, Sam accidentally blew off one of his testicles when a loaded pistol discharged in his pants pocket during some particularly vigorous drumming. Sam was wearing the pistol on the bandstand to protect Cotton from a jealous rival. Because of Wolf’s foresight, Sam drew unemployment for several months while recuperating." And thanks to Wolf, guitarist Hubert Sumlin, his creative foil, and other survivors of his band still collect Social Security payments today.

Howlin’ Wolf was illiterate but smart. He managed his business and his money well, but what he knew best was his artistry. Unlike Muddy Waters, Wolf arrived in Chicago from the Delta with a fully formed electric ensemble sound — as well as a pocket fat with cash and his own car — that he made the Chess brothers record intact. Soon he was as big a star as Muddy Water, then bigger. Authors James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, both veteran blues journalists, excel in explaining the makings of Wolf’s sound, chronicling sessions for such classic songs as "Commit a Crime," which became a blistering staple of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s concerts almost note for note, and oft-covered gems like "Sittin’ on Top of the World" and "Smokestack Lightnin’." When they need more expertise to illustrate a musical turn, they draw on veterans like Sumlin and harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and a wide range of other musicians, including Boston-area-based blues stars Paul Rishell and Jerry Portnoy, who offer insightful analysis of Wolf’s sound, technique, and significance.

The big man suffered from heart and kidney troubles late in his life, though he continued to play — even scheduling dates by their proximity to Veterans’ Administration hospitals so he could undergo dialysis on the road — until he was killed by a brain tumor in 1976, at age 65. During his last years, Wolf often declared he’d be better known after he was dead than during his lifetime. The proliferation of CD reissues of his recordings has made that a prophecy, at least for his music. Now, this book from Segrest and Hoffman ensures that Wolf the man will also be remembered, and remembered well.

Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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