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September 2016
The Blues Discovery, Pt. 5

Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most influential blues musicians ever. Period. Story over. He had an unbelievable voice, and his guitar and harmonica styles set him apart from so many others in the early days of the blues.

Born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, which was little more than a railroad stop between Aberdeen and West Point, in the hill country of Mississippi.  His mother and father separated when he was very young, but that didn’t stop him or his love for music.  After the parents split up, his father moved to the delta while his mother, also poor, would make some money selling hand written gospel songs. Later she would disown her son for playing the devils music.  She left him with his uncle, Will Young, who was a fire and brimstone preacher in White Station.  Chester even sang in the choir back then but when he turned 13 he ran away from uncle Will, who treated him so mean that one of the Wolf’s childhood friends said, “Will Young is the meanest man between here and hell”.

The Wolf wound up in the Delta with his real father and stepmother, a slew of stepsiblings and a half-sister, who lived on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville. It was there that Chester became fascinated with the local blues musicians like Charley Patton.  His father bought him a guitar in January of 1928 and he somehow convinced Patton, who lived on the Dockery Plantation, to give him guitar lessons, and also got some tips on harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller).  Seems there was more than one Sonny Boy Williamson.  When he wasn’t working on his father’s farm he would travel the Delta with other musicians like Sonnyboy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown.

Chester had a voice that was unique in that it was so raw, and so forceful.  He would literally scare other musicians with it, perhaps because of his stage presence, or just the physical size of the man.  He was 6’3” tall and weighed in around 230 lbs., and had a size 16 shoe.  Johnny Shines was quoted that he was afraid of The Wolf, like you’d be of some wild animal, because of the sound he was giving off.

In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included James Cotton and Junior Parker, guitarists Matt Murphy, Pat Hare, and Willie Johnson.  He landed a job at a radio station, KWEM, playing the blues.  He was discovered in 1951 by Sam Phillips, who took him into a studio where he recorded “Moaning at Midnight” and “How Many More Years”.  Little Feat did a version of “How Many More Years” as a medley with 44 Blues.  Lowell loved The Wolf.  Phillips leased the recording to Chess Records and it was released in 1952 and climbed to the top 10 billboard R&B chart.  With that success The Wolf recorded more songs for Phillips, who kept leasing them to Chess and RPM records.  Chess finally won out and signed The Wolf and moved him to Chicago, where he lived out the rest of his life.  It was there that Chester Burnett wrote and recorded blues standards like “Spoonful”, “Killin’ Floor”, “Little Red Rooster” (that was covered by the Rolling Stones), “Back Door Man” (covered by the Doors) “I Ain’t Superstitious”, and my favorite …. “Evil”!

Joined by Hubert Sumlin, the great guitarist who played sometimes with Muddy Waters, The Wolf continued to perform into the 70’s until his health began to fade.  Now a husband and father, he bought farmland down in Arkansas where he would hunt, fish, and farm his land.  He died in Hines, Illinois, on January 10th, 1976 while being operated on for a brain tumor.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall Of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1981, and as one blues critic put it “if you want to know what stage presence is, just point at Howlin’ Wolf and divide by ten.”

He was a blues man though through and through. 

The Blues Discovery Pt. 4

Hello to all who’ve been following my blues blogs here at Better Daze.  Glad you could join me for another round of my influences into the blues, and as I have been focusing on acoustic blues and there are too many players to go into depth on, I thought I would move onto the electric masters who knocked me out in my very formative years.

I remember it like, sort of, at least some of the circumstances, but I can tell you that there I was at the age of 16, sitting in a house in east Hollywood bagging up lids, the kind where keys came wrapped in brightly colored cellophane, and in the background I am diggin’ on what coming out of the stereo. It was a 78 called “Travelin’ ” by John Lee Hooker, released in 1960. So it was just about 3 years out at that time, but it blew my skull away. The songs were, and still are, some of his most compelling, “Solid Sender” being my favorite. Never knew a man could do so much with an electrified guitar and a voice that would send chills up the spine. If you get the chance to get this one I say take it, you won’t be sorry. “I Can’t Believe”, “Whiskey and Wimmen”, “Canal Street”  …  Now then you must have an earful of “Boogie Chillen”, “Queen Bee” and “Crawling Kingsnake” just to hear some of the first recordings of the Hook. The Hook is what he is known by, and his trademark shuffle is perhaps the most borrowed groove in the universe of the blues and rock and roll.

John Lee Hooker was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 22, 1917, the son of sharecroppers, and his stepfather, William Moore, who was a blues musician taught him to play guitar, and according to John, that’s where his unique style came from.  In the early 1940’s he moved to Detroit by way of Memphis and Cincinnati. By day a janitor in the auto factories, but by night he would play shows, house parties and whatever would come his way.  A record store owner who really liked John’s music introduced him to Bernard Besman, a record producer and distributor, who also owned a label called Sensation Records.  Besman recorded John’s songs sometime around 1948, he then leased them to Modern Records.  The first hit was “Boogie Chillun”, later released as “Boogie Chillen”, my guess was they didn’t like the spelling, for reasons we can only speculate on.  “Boogie Chillen” was a jukebox hit selling over a million copies.  He followed that up with a string of hits like “I’m in the Mood” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake”, and he rode that wave for 15 years, leading up to a recording contract with a new label Vee-Jay Records, “Travelin’” was one of the first on this label, and by then he had added a drummer, and sometimes a second guitar, albeit whoever got to play guitar with The Hook had his hands full as he really didn’t follow patterns of standard 12 bar blues, he used the guitar to tell his stories lyrically with that voice.

Of course he would be re-discovered during the folk craze of the 60’s and go back to his acoustic solo versions, but anyway you sliced it, it was raw, strong and extremely funky.  Then the British invasion bands like the Stones and Yardbirds help spread the word across the ocean, and John became an international star.  By the 70’s he was winning Grammys, doing collaborations with, among others, Bonnie Raitt and Los Lobos.  He’s the real deal is all I can say, and I had the pleasure meeting him a few times.  The first was in 1985 in Charlottesville Va.,  where myself and Catfish Hodge, or the original Blues Busters, when it was just a duet, got to open for him.  Fish knew the Hook from Detroit where Catfish grew up and introduced me.  I remember how much I was in awe of finally meeting up face to face with one of my early heroes.  The second time was at a Namm Show showcase where Gibson Guitars asked if I could open up for him, do a 45-minute set, and low and behold he remembered our first meeting, so when the opportunity to play at his 1996 tribute show at Madison Square Garden came to me, I jumped all over it.  There I was, in slide heaven with Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Haynes and Roy Rogers, all in a row, backing up the Hook with Richie Hayward on drums, and the one and only Willie Dixon playing bass.  What a night!  Now I figure a lot of you folks are not blues aficionados, so I beg of you to go grab some of this music, it will enliven your soul.

 

The Blues Discovery, Pt. 3

So for those of you who’ve been following my blues rant, I bring you the second most influential blues musician for me, Mississippi John Hurt.  Mississippi John Hurt was the first blues album I ever went and bought on my own, wish I still had the vinyl, but alas, like the wind, it’s long gone.  I do remember that it was a live recording at what sounded like a small club and internet searches have not come up with the title, it was on Okeh Records, although a Piedmont label was placed over the Okeh label.  It had wonderful songs like “The Sliding Delta”, “Staggerlee”,  “Spike Driver Blues”, and my favorite “The Candy Man Blues”.  His style is so distinctive, a folk-blues finger picking marvel, who only used slide occasionally, but the way he approached the melody with the bass notes made for one of the fullest sounds I ever heard.  His voice was a mix of gravel and smooth, almost soft-spoken texture, and he could really deliver a lyric.  The lyrics could go from a gospel “nearer my god to thee” to the racus “Candy Man Blues”.

John Smith Hurt was born July 3, 1893 in Teoc, Mississippi, but raised up in Avalon, Mississippi, he taught himself to play at the age of 9.  Although he recorded his first tracks 1928, he really wasn’t discovered until he was in his 70’s.  He recalled his first recording session that came about because a fiddle player Willie Narmour suggested it to Okeh record producer Tommy Rockwell while recording his own album.  The first session was in Memphis where, as Mr. Hurt recalled, “was in a great big hall with Rockwell and the engineer, and we were the only ones there.  I sat on a chair and they pushed this microphone right up to my mouth and told me don’t move after they had the right position. I had to keep my head absolutely still, and I was nervous, and my neck was sore for day after.” Later they brought him to New York City to record more tracks, but alas, his recordings were not very successful so he returned to Avalon to share crop and play at parties and dances.

The folk music revival in the late 50’s to the early 60’s was when John was really discovered.  Tom Hoskins was following the trail of the song “Avalon Blues” brought him to meet Mr. Hurt. Hoskins arranged a series of concerts culminating at the Newport Folk Festival where Mississippi John Hurt was treated as a living legend. So at age 70 he was a star, and no one was more surprised than John himself. Through re-releases of his studio recordings and a lot of live recordings, he played and entertained audiences until his death in 1966.

I really can’t put into words how much I admired this man and his style and grace, a humble individual who played music for the love of it, and yet as fate would have it his life turned in an amazing way. I recorded Candy Man Blues with Little Feat because I just love that song, and I wanted to pay tribute to this wonderful man. The highlight of it all was to be paid a visit in Chicago from his granddaughter, who was so thankful that I had covered Candy Man Blues, giving full credit to him and his estate, she was so thankful and I was so humbled, and pleased….

The next blog will be about the electric blues players who’ve influenced me, but I must mention other acoustic players who made the blues what they are - Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Bukka White, Huddie Leadbetter, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Charley Patton and the list could go on and on but I suggest you make your own search, let that blue light be your guide.