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Clip: Howlin' Wolf bio

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  • Carl Zimring
    I was not aware of the Sam Lay anecdote. Ouch. Carl Z. *** http://www.chicagoreader.com/TheMeter/040604.html Four Hundred Pages of Heavenly Joy Howlin Wolf
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 3, 2004
      I was not aware of the Sam Lay anecdote. Ouch.

      Carl Z.



      Four Hundred Pages of Heavenly Joy
      Howlin' Wolf is one of the biggest names in blues, but a new biography is
      the first to tell his story.

      By anyone's standards Chester Arthur Burnett -- the man better known as
      Howlin' Wolf -- led a colorful life. But for first-time authors James
      Segrest and Mark Hoffman, who've just published a biography of the
      legendary singer and harpist, the most remarkable aspect of his story was
      that no one had put it to paper before.

      "I'm still shocked that James and I are the first guys to take a stab at
      this," says Hoffman. "Because here's a guy who was an abused child,
      suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, was shot by one wife, stabbed
      with a butcher knife by another, [and] killed a man with a hoe. All that in
      addition to the fact that he's arguably the greatest bluesman ever. It's
      like, `Why didn't anybody tell this tale yet?'

      "On the other hand," Hoffman adds, "there's not a whole lot of money in
      writing about the blues."

      The seeds for Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf
      (Pantheon) were sown in 1985, when Segrest came upon a Howlin' Wolf best-of
      collection as a grad student in history at Auburn University in Alabama.
      "This may sound corny," he says, "but the first time I heard `Smokestack
      Lightnin',' the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I'd never heard
      anything that made me feel that way before."

      Segrest went to the library to read up on Wolf, but all he could find were
      threadbare anecdotes and bits of boilerplate in blues survey books. In the
      early 90s his work on what would become Moanin' at Midnight began in
      earnest: by then he was pursuing a PhD at the University of South Carolina,
      and he made Wolf the subject of his dissertation. He eventually burned out
      and abandoned his degree program, but not until after he'd researched
      Wolf's early years in Mississippi and Arkansas and spent six weeks in
      Chicago, which had become the bluesman's home in 1953, talking to his
      family, friends, and former colleagues. (Wolf himself died in 1976, at age

      In the fall of 1994 Segrest visited the Record Mart in Drew, Mississippi --
      a magnet for blues enthusiasts. Hoffman, a former writer for Microsoft in
      Seattle and occasional music critic, was at the shop the same day. ("We
      were the only two white faces in there," says Segrest.) Hoffman was
      researching his own volume on Wolf. "I'd basically gotten into this
      heavy-duty blues craze and deep into Wolf," he says. "Like [James] I
      started looking for biographical information on him and found there was
      hardly anything."

      Segrest and Hoffman kept in touch, and after meeting again in Helena,
      Arkansas, at the 1996 King Biscuit Blues Festival, they decided to
      collaborate. During the years of work that followed, the pair conducted
      roughly 300 interviews and dug up thousands of pages of documents. But
      Segrest stayed in Alabama, Hoffman in Washington, and they completed the
      book -- which is nearly 400 pages long -- without another face-to-face

      Moanin' at Midnight turns up a wealth of new facts, unraveling much of the
      mystery that surrounds Howlin' Wolf. Fittingly, it comes on the heels of
      Can't Be Satisfied (Little, Brown), Robert Gordon's definitive bio of
      Wolf's chief Chicago blues rival, Muddy Waters. Segrest and Hoffman aren't
      quite as ambitious as Gordon -- in his hands, Waters's story doubles as a
      metaphor for the black migratory experience of the 20th century -- but they
      provide crucial insight into the forces that drove Wolf throughout his life.

      Chief among them was his conflicted relationship with religion. Cast out by
      his mother for playing "devil's music" and abused by his great-uncle Will
      Young, a deacon, Wolf dug into the blues with such zeal that Segrest and
      Hoffman suspect he was trying to shake off the authority figures who'd
      turned on him. "A lot of people in his community thought he sold his soul,
      and that's not idle talk," says Segrest. "Wolf's own mama...wouldn't even
      come to his funeral." Adds Hoffman, "In a way, how he performed onstage was
      a kind of exorcism and rebellion against what he'd experienced at the hands
      of his mother and Will Young."

      Wolf's theatrical onstage style -- much of it learned from early mentor
      Charlie Patton -- had a tremendous impact on the blues. "Wolf was one of
      the first guys -- at least in Chicago -- who really concentrated on the
      show, on giving a performance," says Segrest. Whereas Muddy Waters radiated
      a detached, urbane cool, Wolf was a feral, menacing presence, unhinged and
      restless. His outrageous antics with women in the audience required him to
      make haste after more than one gig, with a crowd of angry husbands and
      boyfriends on his tail. "When you find out some of the stories about him
      you have to wonder if Wolf was reckless or fearless or a bit of both," says
      Segrest, laughing.

      Wolf's mid-60s appearances in Europe, particularly England, influenced a
      generation of Anglo rockers: in 1969 Led Zeppelin appropriated the riff
      from his "Killing Floor" for "The Lemon Song," and covers of his tunes
      appeared on albums by Jeff Beck, Cream, and others. His recorded output of
      the era -- "Wang Dang Doodle," "Spoonful," "The Red Rooster" -- would also
      leave its mark on the warped blues of Americans like Tom Waits and Captain

      Though Moanin' at Midnight acknowledges Wolf's larger-than-life image, the
      book also takes pains to present him as a three-dimensional character. More
      than just a bug-eyed house-rocking behemoth -- he was six foot three and
      nearly 300 pounds in his prime -- Wolf was a responsible businessman and
      bandleader, even withholding social security and unemployment from his
      musicians' pay. (Thanks to this foresight, drummer Sam Lay was able to
      collect government checks for months after he accidentally shot off one of
      his own testicles.) Wolf's financial prudence likely had its roots in the
      years he spent following his itinerant sharecropper father around the
      Mississippi Delta. "He had a childhood of such deprivation," says Hoffman.
      "He never wanted to go back to walking around with burlap bags wrapped
      around his feet
      for shoes."

      Purists have always regarded Wolf highly, but Segrest and Hoffman feel that
      his legacy has suffered with the general public. Part of this they
      attribute to his career arc: by the early 70s Wolf was handicapped by heart
      and kidney problems, and though he continued to record and perform, he
      never again achieved the high profile he'd enjoyed in the late 60s. By
      contrast, Muddy Waters remained healthy and active until his death in '83,
      making appearances with the Band and the Rolling Stones and cutting four
      fine comeback albums with Johnny Winter in the late 70s and early 80s.

      "Wolf didn't quite live long enough to get some of the acclaim that Muddy
      did," says Hoffman. "A few more years might've really helped."

      Segrest and Hoffman have scheduled a series of appearances in Chicago,
      including a 5 PM panel discussion at the Chicago Blues Festival's Route 66
      Roadhouse stage on Thursday, June 10 (Wolf's 94th birthday), a stop at
      Rosa's Lounge at 9 that night, and a 9:30 brunch reading and book signing
      at Jazz Record Mart on Sunday, June 13.

      -- BOB MEHR
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