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Jon Landau on Howlin' Wolf

Hi. This year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continues its recognition of the blues as the essential building block of rock music. The blues are among the most immediate and direct musical expressions ever created, as well as a means of communication for a whole culture that most of white society was unable to recognize or cope with then, or even now, rose up from the everyday life and experience of people who were not only oppressed, but often rendered invisible by the evils of racism and its attendant violence, segregation, and economic injustice. The artistic legacy of every bluesman and every blueswoman involves some level of triumph over this adversity. Perhaps it was out of this experience that som many blues artists found the musical means and emotional courage to confront the most timeless and difficult themes: life, love, and death. Chester Burnett, alias Howlin' Wolf ("I could do no yodeling, so I turned to howlin'," he once told an interviewer) was a big man: two hundred seventy pounds in his prime, and a big part of the electric blues story. He contributed a body of work that is among the darkest, most paranoid, and most intense - often sexually intense - of any blues artist. At his purest, he sounded positively unearthly, as if he were able to tap into sounds and feelings that were both pre-conscious and universal, and at his greatest, it is hard to think of many singers that could sound as compelling. Born in West Point, Mississippi in 1910, he grew up on nearby Young and Marrow Plantation. I'm told it's a lovely spot, and did [...video cuts out...] Time in West Memphis, Arkansas, where he encountered another of tonight's Hall of Fame inductees, Ike Turner, with whom he cut his first sides. Soon after that, he went to Chess Records, and then the classics started pouring out of him. Wolf sang starkly, directly, dynamically, and with great artistry. While he had a big voice on such blues masterpieces as "Moanin' at Midnight," "Smokestack Lightning," "Evil," and "Wang Dang Doodle," he used it with great range and control. Remarkably, he managed to sound guttural and coarse, clear and distinct all at the same time, and as a vocalist, he understood space and phrasing as well as any blues artist. Rhythmically, with the help of such longtime accompanists as the greatly underrated guitarist Hubert Sumlin and drummers Fred Bealow [?] and Earl Phillips, Wolf made such classics as "44" and "Back Door Man" simply come alive with energy and invention. And finally, as a performer, Wolf pioneered the extreme stage tactics and extroverted style that have been the hallmark of the rock and roll spirit for the last thirty-five years. Perhaps it was only onstage that he allowed the darkness of his obsessions to be fully matched by his raw humor and exuberance. He could appear as a pure force of nature and as a musical hypnotist at one and the same time. He was truly something else and something other. Not long before he died in 1976, he told that wonderful writer Peter Gorelnick, "Sometimes it seems like it gets so hard, I just can't go on." Peter goes on to write that a little while later, Wolf's face brightened, and he added, "You see, I done got too old to get a job - now I really gotta stay with the music." We can all only be grateful that he did. Let's take a look at this tape.

Howlin’ Wolf