Howlin’ Wolf: “What is the Soul of Man?”

In early December, I made my yearly note that the Oxford American‘s annual Music Issue was about to hit the streets.  Usually full of interesting takes on musicians, unknown, little known, or well known, it includes a CD of music by all artists profiled.

(NOTE: The issue has been out for some time, but Soundscapes on College always gets in a good stock. Information on the issue, along with some articles, and online music is available on the OA website )

This year’s issue focuses on the music of Mississippi, and the cover features Howlin’ Wolf, who’s the subject of a fine article by Peter Guralnick, subtitled “What is the Soul of Man”

That comes from the famous quote by Wolf’s discoverer and first producer, the founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, who on hearing Wolf for the first time said, “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies”.

Although his list of discoveries include Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and various other notable rockers and blues musicians, Guralnick says Phillips considered Wolf “the greatest pure talent he ever encountered”,

Guralnick also quotes blues guitarist Johnny Shines about Wolf, “I thought he was a magic man. That’s how great I thought he was”.

When it came time to record Wolf, Phillips faced a challenge. “How were you ever going to capture someone who sang ‘with his damn soul?’” The first two songs Wolf recorded were “How Many More Years” and “Moanin’ at Midnight”, both reaching the top 10 in the R&B charts.

Within a year or two, Wolf left for Chess Records in Chicago, and Phillips, who also lost Presley, Lewis, Cash, Roy Orbison and others, considered Wolf’s loss his greatest disappointment.

Guralnick then moves on to the 60’s. He said that a few years ago, when the New York Times asked him to write about something he considered a defining moment of the 20th century, “I never hesitated for an instant. It was Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig! [a mid-60’s teen music show] with the Rolling Stones at his feet.”

He provides a great account of that night (which he also characterizes as “the greatest moment in television history”).

I won’t argue with him… it was certainly memorable and momentous. No doubt the show drew huge ratings as getting the Stones was a huge deal. Jagger and Brian Jones introduce Wolf… it’s not likely many of their fans knew anything about Howlin’ Wolf (whose “Little Red Rooster” had been a hit for the band) but they described him as one of their idols.

It’s also likely few of those fans had seen anything like the Wolf. Here it is: May 20,1965 with Wolf shaking up “How Many More Years”:

A little more taste of the Wolf:

“Moanin’ at Midnigh”from 1951:

“Dust My Broom” from 1966. And who’s the old guy groovin’ away on stage with the band? Son House, one of the last of the original Delta bluesmen, who was to play his last performance on the Toronto Islands in 1974.