Smokestack Lightning

by wjw on May 20, 2016

Heading into the weekend, let’s flash back to 1965, when the Rolling Stones consented to appear on the American music program Shindig (created and hosted by Jack Good, who was English).  This sort of prime time Bandstand show wasn’t really the Stones’ kind of thing, but they consented to appear only on condition that Howlin’ Wolf be their special guest.

So here’s the Wolf, singing one of his early hits, “How Many More Years,” with the Rolling Stones sitting worshipfully at his feet.  (Quick: try to think of the Stones being worshipful of anyone else, ever.)

Aside from his growling voice, Howlin’ Wolf’s trademark was a distinct aura of menace.  He was 6’3″ and 275 pounds, an ex-horse cavalryman, and it was claimed that he was the only blues artist who could both rock the house and terrify the audience all at the same time.

Although he could clearly take care of himself, I don’t think he was actually any kind of menace.  Though he came from a neglected/abused background, I haven’t heard of him abusing anyone.

He was one of the few blues artists who made money and kept it.  (Maybe it was that aura of menace.)  Though he was functionally illiterate until his forties (when he got his GED), he clearly knew how to add up a column of figures, and when he emigrated from the South to Chicago, it was in his own car and with $4000 in his pocket.

One of the benefits of having money was that he was able to afford the best sidemen around, and even pay their health insurance.  So he always had great musicians backing him, and he got some of his best songs from writer/producer/arranger/bass player Willie Dixon, who pretty well created the Chicago sound on his own.  It was a fruitful collaboration.

So here’s the guy the Stones worshiped, playing on a kind of show in which neither was completely comfortable.  Though I thoroughly appreciate Brian Jones telling the announcer to shut up and let the Wolf play.

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