Moanin’ at Midnight includes these thoughts by singer and musician Bonnie Raitt:
If I had to pick one person who does everything I loved about the blues, it would be Howlin’ Wolf. It would be the size of his voice, or just the size of him. When you’re a little pre-teenage girl and you imagine what a naked man in full arousal is like, it's Howlin’ Wolf. When I was a kid, I saw a horse in a field with an erection, and I went, “Holy shit!” That's how I feel when I hear Howlin’ Wolf—and when I met him it was the same thing. He was the scariest, most deliciously frightening bit of male testosterone I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Howlin’ Wolf was indeed a unique force of nature, performing gutbucket blues as if possessed by supernatural powers. He left behind myriad memories, a legion of fans, and a treasure trove of classic recordings that blended the down-home Delta sound he honed as a youth with the electrified style that was a Chicago blues trademark.
Embarking on a labor of love, blues aficionados James Segrest and Mark Hoffman faced two daunting tasks in writing this biography: how to assess the accuracy of stories distorted or embellished over time, and how to capture in words the emotional power of Wolf's recordings and the riveting magnetism of his live performances. To judge from favorable reviews by blues historians, the authors fared well on both counts. Among Moanin’ at Midnight's many virtues are its descriptions of the Mississippi Delta of Wolf's youth, the Memphis and Chicago music scenes at mid-twentieth century, and Wolf's influence on 1960's groups in Great Britain and the United States.
Born in 1910 and named for America's twenty-first president, Chester Arthur Burnett had a miserable youth. He claimed he got his lupine nickname from a grandfather who scared him with stories about wolves in the woods. Abandoned by his mentally unstable teenage mother, he moved in with a great-uncle who treated him like a beast of burden. Fleeing a bullwhip beating at age thirteen, he reunited with his father, a sharecropper. He sang ditties behind a plow pulled by mules and paid fifteen cents for his first harmonica.
In 1927 Chester's father brought in a good crop and bought his son a guitar. As was also the case with Delta legend Robert Johnson, bluesman Charlie Patton was Wolf's most important influence. Wolf claimed he would sit outside a juke joint on Dockery's Plantation and try to imitate his mentor until one day Patton invited him to join him. Compared to farming, the life of a traveling entertainer was exciting but dangerous. Patton once had his throat cut from ear to ear during a barrelhouse brawl. A chain smoker with a weak heart, he died in 1934 at age forty-two. In a recording studio some thirty-five years later, Wolf recalled Patton being “a hard-luck boy like me.” Recalling his childhood in “Hard Luck,” Wolf sang:
Well, rocks is my pillow. Cold ground is my bed.
Highway is my home and I’d just rather be dead.
I’m walkin’. And Lord, I don’t have nowhere to go.
The road I’m travelin’ on, the road is mud and cold.
In 1930 Funny Papa Smith released “Howling Wolf Blues.” Around then Wolf set out on his own, performing in juke joints in Arkansas and Mississippi, sometimes for as little as a fish sandwich plus tips for requests. He also played on street corners for coins. Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex “Rice” Miller) taught him to play harp, and the two sometimes appeared together. Wolf had such striking blue-gray eyes, feral magnetism, and ribald mannerisms that many thought he had sold his soul to the devil (including his mother, who rebuffed several efforts to establish contact). In addition to Wolf's trademark howl, he gyrated suggestively, crawled like a snake, played the guitar behind his head, and got down on all fours simulating fornication while singing, “Let Me Hump You, Baby.”
Wolf enjoyed the pleasures of many women. Israel “Wink” Clark claims Wolf “had a wife near about everywhere he went.” Frenzied females would jump on his back and ride him across the floor. One girlfriend plunged a butcher knife in his leg for flirting with a rival; Wolf allegedly kept on singing right out the door before rushing to a hospital. Once he made a hasty retreat ahead of his sexual partner's husband, jumped out a second-story window, and ran into barbed wire. In the darkness, he first believed he had been stabbed. Another cuckold severely beat a woman Wolf was seeing. Enraged, Wolf hit the man with a cotton hoe, slicing off part of his head and killing him instantly.
In Pace, Mississippi, after a white woman asked Wolf to play on her porch, her husband had him arrested. Released from jail a week later, Wolf fled, leaving behind a son and common-law wife. Having been pressured to join the Army during World War II, he reacted poorly to the regimentation and languished several months in a hospital before receiving an honorable discharge.
Widespread adoption in the South of mechanical cotton harvesters meant less money for juke-joint performers. In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Tennessee, took...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)