moanin’ at midnight: the life and times of howlin’ wolf

When confined to a military hospital, doctors noted that he cried freely, was fearful and begged to go home, showed a tendency to destroy furniture and lift beds, and that he kicked at the gate with his size 16 feet…”


by mike mosher


James Segrest and Mark Hoffman’s 2004 biography of legendary bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf is thickly layered with thorough, serious scholarship, and all of his fans can be grateful for it. It details with all possible precision which musicians played with him and when. The text is followed by a Discography, Sessionography and Bibliography (Do whiskey-drinking bluesmen merit a Bibulous-ography? Sorry). The book’s first sentence, about his birth in spring 1910, evokes Halley’s Comet. A sentimental movie biopic this reviewer saw as a child bookmarked the life of Mark Twain (born 1835 and died 1910) with appearances of the comet. Yet Wolf didn’t live until its next appearance in 1986—in fact his death followed the dim and anticlimactic Comet Kohoutek by about two years.

I never saw the Wolf play live. I missed his concerts in Ann Arbor when I was in high school, including the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals. As a college junior I visited Chicago over Thanksgiving 1975, and at a party of former summer employees of the Museum of Science and Industry I announced I’d seen a poster advertising Howlin’ Wolf playing at the Chicago Amphitheater on the West Side. A black guy my age, a student home from Yale, shuddered and said “Man, you wouldn’t catch me in that neighborhood.” As a result, I didn’t go, and it proved to be one of Wolf’s last gigs—he died a few months later. Wolf’s doctor had even forbidden him to play the Chicago gig because of his failing kidneys.

Becoming the Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett, the young boy who later became Howlin’ Wolf, was an only child who was sent away from home while he was still a little boy. The motive for expulsion from his home is unclear—perhaps the boy was not spiritual, too black, or his mother’s man at the time commanded her to toss him out. Chester’s mother Louise was deeply religious and deeply troubled. She was a street singer of self-penned spirituals. Several decades after he was sent away, he saw his mother again, but she spat on the money he gave her, saying that he had obtained it by “playing dirty blues.”

He went to live with an abusive great-uncle, and spent his time in seclusion, often sitting alone under the house. Before long he ended up in the house of Dock Burnett, a 32-year-old relative who took the boy hunting and fishing and, though a strict disciplinarian, was usually supportive. This eccentric stepfather feared cats and babies—“They just don’t feel right”—and the teenage boy was otherwise occupied with sharecropping, plowing, and farm work. But Burnett noticed the boy was fascinated by area bluesman Charley Patton and was often singing, so he gave young Chester his first guitar at the age of 18. Chester began to play in public, and demonstrated an ability to make up songs quickly. His early stage names included “Foots” and “Buford”, and later in the 1940s, “Big Foot Chester.” The boy’s gravelly voice was a result of childhood bouts of tonsillitis which damaged his vocal cords—at least that’s how Dock Burnett explained it to an American Red Cross investigator in 1943. His style has been compared to South African and Tuva throat-singing, and to his white imitator, disc jockey Wolfman Jack. Rockabilly great Ronnie “Mr. Dynamo” Hawkins said Howlin’ Wolf’s voice was “stronger’n forty acres of crushed garlic.”

As a young boy he killed a hog which he claimed ruined his fine pants, and was in a car accident which killed two people while on his way to a funeral. Chester also supposedly killed a man by chopping off the top of his head with a hoe. Soon the rumors had him killing three or four guys in a bar fight, or that he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play. A bullet struck his guitar while he was standing outside a rough southern juke joint. Wolf already was letting a reputation of malevolence, even violence, build around him, and years later when he played Silvio’s club in Chicago he was booked as “Howlin’ Wolf and his Evil Going On Combo.”

Wolf was forced to join the U.S. Army at age 30, in the spring before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Army didn’t like his attitude, which it attributed to “possible syphilis” or the “psychoneurosis” of a “mental defective”. When confined to a military hospital, doctors noted that he cried freely, was fearful and begged to go home, showed a tendency to destroy furniture and lift beds, and that he kicked at the gate with his size 16 feet. The Army finally granted Chester an honorable discharge in 1943.

Chester had spent little of his childhood or adolescence in school, and was still barely literate. He sold ads for a radio station but was unable to read them, which hindered his radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, AK (he usually called it KWM). He almost had a car accident when he saw a sign advertising “Breakfast” and thought it was a command to Brake Fast! Wolf’s lack of schooling and country reticence led many he encountered to misjudge him. A recording engineer later said Wolf was twice the singer as Sinatra, but was “two steps ahead of an idiot—the kind of fellow who wears caps and works in alleys…vaguely menacing, very black…pretty ugly…had the paranoia of the very stupid.”

On his radio show he played blues and sang on the air, often with visiting musicians. His circle over the years included Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller, who was related by Wolf by marriage), trombonist Big Jaw, a one-legged drummer, Ike Turner (until he swung a mop at Wolf’s head for refusing to pay him), and Matt “Guitar” Murphy.

Wolf played repeatedly at the University of Mississippi Delta Kappa Epsilon house, a fraternity that also hired Slim Harpo and Irma Thomas. While Wolf liked the money, and the fact that they would find him other gigs nearby to make the travel worth his while, he didn’t like it when the “Dekes” would often steal his harmonicas. Despite a certain level of regional success, Wolf tired of the south and set his sights on relocating to Chicago.

The Wolf in Chicago

Wolf moved to Chicago from Memphis in 1953, after the end of his marriage to one Katie Mae, with a $4,000 car and $4,000 in his pocket, “the onliest one to drive out of the south like a gentleman”. Founded by Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess—born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz (names I would have liked to have heard Wolf sing)—Chicago’s Chess Records was a small label that recorded black music. It was there that Wolf recorded “Wang Dang Doodle”, a song by Chess’ prolific songwriter/arranger/bassist Willie Dixon, based on an old song called “Bull Daggers’ Ball”. Hearing it for the first time, Wolf said “Man, that’s too old-timey, sounds like some old levee camp number,” but Dixon prevailed and Wolf recorded it. Koko Taylor, who made the song into a hit in 1966, first appeared onstage with Wolf. Ever the opportunist, when “Dust My Broom” was a big hit, Wolf called his band the Broom Dusters. Wolf chafed at having to learn Dixon’s songs (even the delightfully goofy samba “300 Pounds of Joy”) and arrangements, but one needs only compare the Chess album His Greatest Sides, from his years in Chicago, with his repetitious Memphis recordings to realize how greatly the artist benefited from Dixon’s onsite editing.

Wolf assembled a band in Chicago after his arrival in 1953, and soon found 19 year old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and sent him to study with a 66 year old “opera guitar” player. Wolf was a mentor to young Sumlin, yet he also got in fistfights with him at times. Wolf quickly displaced Muddy Waters, Chess Records’ top star, as the headliner at the Zanzibar Club.

As a bandleader Wolf expected professionalism and decorum from his musicians at all times. In contrast to Sonny Boy Williamson, who lived on two or three bottles of whiskey a day, Wolf liked a bottle, but not until the show was over, enjoyed in the solitude of his hotel room. He wouldn’t let the band drink onstage or in his car. Though he briefly employed a drunk piano player called Birdbreath, and fired a plastered drummer who brandished a gun onstage, Wolf made fun of the Muddy Waters Drunken Ass Band. Wolf had a rivalry with Waters, but he helped pay for the funeral of Muddy’s wife Geneva in 1973, as he’d paid for Little Walter’s funeral in 1968. Wolf threatened drummer S. P. Leary at gunpoint after the drunken Leary whistled at a white woman, declaring “I’m going to kill you now because you are going to get us all killed.” Sam Lay, another eccentric sticksman, carried a snub-nosed .38 until he shot off his own testicle. Yet Lay called Wolf the “softest” and “sweetest” bandleader he ever played with beneath his guff, growling exterior.

Wolf got into trouble in his various adventures with women, once finding his neck wrapped in barbed wire after escaping a jealous husband. In Chicago’s Zanzibar club, Wolf was dancing with women patrons one night when his jealous girlfriend stuck him in the leg with a butcher knife, but he kept on playing. In his fifties, Wolf sent a love note to Etta James at the Apollo, but she rebuffed him as an “old country man.” This strong and lusty man often ate 10 biscuits at a time, and reportedly could hold up the back end of a car while others changed a flat.

And the little girls, or at least fecund and carnal women, understood. Maria Muldaur is said to have timed her labor to Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Darling,” playing over and over on the turntable for hours. Bonnie Raitt fondly recalls, “When you’re a little pre-teenage girl and you imagine what a naked man in full arousal is like, it’s Howlin’ Wolf. When I was a kid I saw a horse in a field with an erection and I went ‘Holy shit!’ That’s how I feel when I hear Howlin’ Wolf. When I met him it was the same thing. He was the scariest, most frightening bit of male testosterone I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Wolf was married twice and divorced once, and had an estimated five serious relationships with women, one the mother of his son. He met his second wife Lillie in 1957, and lived prudently with her. He was 47, she was 22, and they bought their own $30,000 house in 1963, paying off the mortgage in a year. With Lillie’s help, he paid Social Security and workers’ comp from band members’ wages. Lillie would eventually sustain him through his most successful era and his declining days of ill health.

The Wolf in Michigan

The 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was pivotal in Wolf’s acceptance by white college students, and an inspiration to that generation’s blues and rock musicians. “One of the first and greatest blues festivals ever convened” according to the authors, it took place fourteen days before Woodstock, thirteen days after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and boasted a Chicago-heavy lineup of big city electric blues that rock fans liked.

Wolf spent the afternoon talking and drinking with Muddy Waters, and, once they were both well-lubricated, Wolf hit the stage one hour before Muddy. The 59-year-old Wolf noticed a motor scooter backstage, hopped on, and rode onstage with it, baseball cap on backwards. “The first rap star,” gush the authors of this biography, “goggled his eyes like a gland case”. The normally natty Wolf wore baggy khakis, a summer shirt, and no tie. He drank from bottles offered by the audience, and a CREEM magazine correspondent wrote that the band’s music on “Killing Floor” created “a viscous mist”. As an evening train on the tracks across the Huron River approached the area, Wolf and band played “Smokestack Lightnin'” to the shuffling beat of the train’s wheels, as Wolf’s mournful harmonica blew like a train whistle. The crowd of 10,000 was delighted. Wolf had extended his set to well over an hour, and Muddy had to shorten his closing set to avoid the wrath of Sheriff Doug Harvey, who had established a strict curfew on the concerts. At the Second Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970, Wolf was the opening night headliner. Organizers John Sinclair and Pete Andrews expanded the festival concept and produced the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in September 1972, which drew 15,000 people, and recorded a souvenir album.

Wolf returned to southeastern Michigan in 1973 and 1974, playing at the Rainbow Room in the Shelby Hotel in downtown Detroit, rolling on his back as he played despite doctors’ orders. Though Prince has been known to include stage rolling and horizontal histrionics in his stage act (usually leaping up quickly afterwards), the practice deserves study (and perhaps contextualization as a Michigan thing). By the late 1930s Wolf had developed his crawlin’, slidin’ shtick, prowling the stage on all fours or wallowing on his belly to mime the activities of a “Tail Dragger” alligator. He would bellow “Let me hump you, baby” and similar sexual allusions while on all fours. At one show shortly after he arrived in Chicago and began playing at the Zanzibar club, Wolf climbed up on the bar, crawled on his knees, howled, and walked out the door with a 100-foot microphone cable, whooping and hollering until the police ran him back indoors.

Interviewed at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival, Wolf complained of some of the music he’d heard in town. “Too loud is nothin’ but knockness. That’s what you call real garbage, that’s the worst garbage in town,” then compared it to Bugs Bunny with a carrot. One wonders if he was talking of Detroit area rock bands like the MC5 or Stooges. Despite the attempts of imitators like James “Tail Dragger” Jones, Lee “Little Wolf” Solomon, and Jesse “Little Howlin’ Wolf” Sanders, a case could be made that Wolf’s most devoted student of performance was Stooges vocalist Iggy Pop, who was photographed in attendance at the Ann Arbor Festival. Iggy was briefly a student of Wolf’s drummer Sam Lay, and in interviews Iggy said he quickly realized he was “not an old black guy” but wanted to have the same kind of impact that Chicago bluesmen commanded.

Though dressed in a fine suit, “the tail dragger” Wolf would tuck a bar towel into the back of his belt and sway it around like an animal’s tail. Iggy Pop revived this plumage by appearing in the 1970s in pants with a real horse’s tail appropriately affixed. When Wolf told an audience at the American Legion Hall in Milwaukee that he was born with a tail like a real wolf, several women wanted to go backstage for a peek.

Wolf gave his audiences an unprecedented focus upon his crotch. He’d perform “Back Door Man” making vulgar gestures there with a big wooden spoon. On numerous occasions he pulled the microphone from the front of pants and began singing. Wolf would shake up a Coke bottle, put it in his pants, unzip his fly and spray the crowd. Segrest and Hoffman point out that this was “never officially advertised by the Coca Cola company.”

Howlin’ Wolf saw limits to acceptable stage exuberance though, and counseled young James Brown not to grab women’s skirts as part of singing his most passionate hit: “Young man, I would advise you, if you want to live, don’t crawl up under these women’s dresses singing ‘Please, Please, Please’!”

The Wolf in Winter

Wolf was nearly shot in a store holdup in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and gave weird looks to stoned San Francisco hippies as he lay on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium playing his guitar. A San Diego reviewer called him “an angry black Jehovah/King Kong hybrid deity.” He was probably happiest back home in Chicago—in one especially accommodating north side bar Wolf had his own rocking chair, where he would sit smoking a big meerschaum pipe. Wolf was co-owner of the west side club Silvio’s, which burned down in the riots following the death of Martin Luther King in April 1968. “I lost about, me and that honky lost about, I’d say, about forty thousand dollars each”, Wolf later groused.

Despite a national profile and strong financial success, his later record output was spotty, if only because of laziness or inattention on Chess’ part. He successfully sued for royalties after the sale of Chess to the conglomerate GRT. Chess recorded a couple of “Super Super Blues Band” albums with Wolf, Muddy, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter all making fun of each other in the studio as members of their bands choogled along. The album “Howlin’ Wolf” he publicly called dogshit, which prompted Chess to put a sticker on the cover saying “He didn’t like his first electric guitar either.”

Tied to this was his declining health. After returning from a trip to Great Britain, he had a heart attack while driving in Chicago with Sumlin. In Toronto, he had a reaction to his heart drugs, and the doctors recommended kidney surgery. His wife Lillie put him on a diet, which also required him to give up cigarettes and alcohol. He went to London to make “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” album with Eric Clapton and Rolling Stones Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and pianist Ian Stewart, but once there he was hospitalized with another negative drug reaction.

Back in Chicago he recorded Message to Young, said by some to be his worst album. In the title cut he leered and cackled “You girls, you want to wear your dresses short? Go and wear your dresses short, I’ll appreciate it if don’t nobody else will. Awooo!” Later, upon spying a miniskirted New Yorker, he mused “You know how pretty soon they won’t wear no clothes at all—little thing in front like the Apache Indians. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

He recorded “Coon on the Moon”, a topical song juxtaposing NASA triumphs and race politics, much in the manner of Calypso singer the Mighty Panta, who declared “No white man is going to the moon and leaving the Panta here.” Wolf’s “Watergate Blues” concerned Frank Willis, the black security guard who found and reported the Democratic Party headquarters burglary that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. He wanted to do product endorsements, but none were forthcoming.

On New Years morning in 1973 Wolf had a car accident, and the jolt to his kidneys prompted his doctors to recommend he take dialysis three times a week, which meant a machine had to be moved to his home. Lillie helped him as much as she could, and visitors were disturbed by the inevitably bloody and leaky process. Wolf barely managed to play a show in Seattle, overly fatigued after a Memphis gig and the accompanying travel, and died on January 8, 1976 of a brain tumor. A big whiskey-fueled wake followed.

The Book of the Wolf

The authors of Moanin’ at Midnight try to hang much upon the central crisis in Wolf’s life, his childhood banishment and abandonment. What should be a passionate, heart-wrenching story that launches the book—the tale of the young boy being sent away to fend for himself under the watch of distant relatives—is broken up by a digression on his parentage and lineage, and numbered footnotes pop like flashbulbs, interrupting the flow of the story, defusing any build-up and affect. At the end of the day, despite his anguished stage persona, Wolf dealt with his childhood demons by maintaining a firm professionalism in the management of his band of musicians—despite those who often tended to slovenly habits—and a happy marriage marked by mutual devotion later in his life.

“Nobody I heard before him or after him had that fantastic delivery” writes B.B. King in his graceful intro to the book. The text blossoms with interviews, History Channel-style, talking heads recorded in recollections that can grow a bit tedious. Yet at their best, the interviews provide deeply mysterious contemplations as eccentric as Wolf himself. Johnny Shines said that on meeting Wolf in 1932, “He looked different than anyone I’d seen. He was a long lanky man with black velvety skin. It looked like it would ripple if you would blow on it, like a vial of black oil.” A slightly different version of this interview says “riffle,” and the authors make sure both appear so readers do not fault their thoroughness.

Sometimes we are left wanting more information. After Wolf killed that man with a hoe to the head, we are told that black “fellow Masons” helped him escape. So Wolf was a Prince Hall Mason, active in his lodge? Did he play for Masonic gatherings? One interviewee gives a first-hand account of the various diversions to be found in the rough southern joints where Wolf played “They played coon can, poker and tonk. That’s a card game, tonk. Yeah man, and kotch. There a lot of guys play kotch and big kotch balls”. What balls? Balls as events where cards are played? Balls rolled around as a part of game play? Balls as in the player’s necessary cojones to play this aggressive game well? Some sentences are unintentionally hilarious, and read like a Vivian Stanshall monolgue or a Monty Python skit. Charley Patton “died in 1934, at the age of forty-three, from a chronic heart condition, not long after someone cut his throat from ear to ear in a juke joint fracas.” Gosh, that’d break my heart too.

“There are no rumors in this book. Not a one,” writes Taj Mahal in a back-cover blurb. And that’s the problem. This reviewer seeks a treatment of Wolf’s life and myth like Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, a small book emphasizing and exaggerating the spirit/flesh struggle in Jerry Lee Lewis. Wolf’s music was hailed by English poet Philip Larkin as “pure jazz gothic” and compared it to Coleridge’s poems of demon love. Greil Marcus wrote that “Wolf’s best records came on like three-minute race riots”; while this might be rhetorical horseshit, the songs do evince a crafty, crafted outburst of intelligent emotionalism born of both societal and personal repressions every bit as powerful as Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. To do Howlin’ Wolf justice, we need a book that mirrors the way Wolf tapped into the deep fount of the irrational—Camille Paglia would say chthonic—that later motivated the vocal work of his Dadaist disciple Captain Beefheart (in daylight the expressionist painter Don Van Vliet).

Moanin’ at Midnight:The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf is a responsibly researched and written academic book, which this grand bluesman surely deserves. Now I seek the tail-draggin’, growlin’, hellified poetic one. I’ll appreciate it if don’t nobody else will. Awooo!


Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf
James Segrest and Mark Hoffman
New York, Pantheon Books, 2004
ISBN 0-375-42246-3
$26.95 US/$39.95 Can.

Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Five
February 2005

(Drawing © Mike Mosher 2005 )

Mike Mosher <mosheratsvsudotedu> has godzillions of contributions online at Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life and Leonardo Reviews.

His obsessions are Michigan rock n’ roll of the late Revolutionary era (1970-73), and the traditional pedagogy of the Three C’s (comics, community murals and cyberspace).

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