Listening to him today, even seeing him on YouTube may not be enough to show younger people how intimidating Howlin' Wolf seemed 40 years ago. At six and a half feet tall, he was a colossus of a bluesman, a frighteningly intense force of nature delivering such tales of misery and love gone very, very wrong as "Smokestack Lightning," "Spoonful" and "Killing Floor." When I was assigned to interview Wolf for a music magazine, I was more than a bit nervous about how he would take to a young middle-class Jewish white kid from Lawn Guyland. He turned out to be nothing but kind and helpful.
The story of American music is often the story of race -- and particularly of white boys and girls learning about music from black men and women. The tale of Elvis Presley hanging out in Mississippi juke joints is something like a gospel story in the history of American culture.
The compelling new documentary Born In Chicago (directed by John Anderson, produced by John Beug and co-produced by Barry Goldberg) is the Genesis story of a bunch of middle-class white kids (Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel et al.) who forged personal and musical relationships with Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and other seminal Chicago bluesmen. The result was an extraordinary body of work every bit as important as charttopping blues-influenced British Invaders like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds.
More than 50 years ago, Howlin' Wolf's ferocious music and gentler side were revealed to guitar whiz Bloomfield and Goldberg, his keyboard-adept buddy. They had taken Bloomfield's mom's car across the tracks to see Wolf perform at Silvio's, a rough and tumble blues club on the South Side of Chicago. That they were the only white people in the joint was all the more conspicuous when they were seated at a front row table.
In the middle of his set, Wolf, who'd taken an interest in Bloomfield's mind-blowing guitar work, told the audience, "We got some little white boys in the house." He summoned the two kids to sit in for a while. The dynamic duo seized on their "let there be blues" moment and made it through without a scratch.
Not long after, during a Muddy Waters show at Big John's, a mixed race venue, keyboardist Otis Spann asked Goldberg to spell him. When Muddy, the writer of "Got My Mojo Workin'," "Mannish Boy" and, yes, "Howlin' Wolf," spotted the callow youth playing literally at his feet, he was displeased. But Goldberg kept coming back and kept sitting in until, he says, there came "a single moment when I suddenly got it -- mind, body and music became one. I could tell that Muddy felt it too."
What's chronicled in Born In Chicago is no starry-eyed mentorship program. Gravenites calls his younger self a petty hoodlum and Musselwhite carried a hammer that had quite a different purpose than Pete Seeger's mythical tool of justice. In an aside that's funny only in retrospect, Buddy Guy says that in those days, "When a white face showed up at an all-black club, you think, 'Don't mess with him -- he's a cop.'"
The documentary, which debuted at SWSX last month, provides a tantalizing taste of just a few of the myriad offshoots of Goldberg's generation, including the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Butterfield played with Waters on "Mannish Boy" in The Last Waltz) and Goldberg/Bloomfield's phenomenal horn-rock band the Electric Flag, whose first recorded song was Wolf's "Killing Floor."
The film includes a Windy City twist to the oft-told Dylan-goes-electric momentat Newport, when he and his band -- with Bloomfield on guitar and Goldberg on keyboards -- changed rock history forever by "plugging in." They closed, of course, with "Like A Rolling Stone" -- another homage to the Muddy Waters song that gave the Rolling Stones their name. Goldberg says, "When we played 'Like A Rolling Stone' at Newport, we were playing the blues.'"
Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess, whose family-monikered label housed Wolf, Waters and too many other blues geniuses to mention, narrates the film with wise elder-statesmanship. He says, "You can't play music that hasn't gone through Chicago."
But if the blues are importantly a Chicago phenomenon, that's only because the city was so intimately connected with the migration of blacks from the Deep South, and especially Mississippi. Rock and rollers tracing the music's migration often ended up in the Delta -- or, like Keith Richards, in Southern literature.
Richards had a fascinating correspondence with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty. Welty, born in Mississippi, caught Richards' eye after he read her short story, "Powerhouse," which was inspired by a Fats Waller performance. In one letter, Welty, after watching a Stones concert on PBS, expresses her amazement at, "all the energy and the costumes. You all dress better than women, especially that Mike Jagger."
Richards responds that all his heroes have "been Negroes and mostly from your state, Muddy, Wolf, B.B., Hooker." He adds that his "spiritual blackness" is in his blood. "You know blood, luv? My blood? The blood I've supposedly had transfused in a secret hospital somewhere?" (Hat tip to Mark Hanzlik.)
The film includes footage of the barely-out-of-their-teens Rolling Stones -- whose 1962 recording of Muddy Waters' "Little Red Rooster" went to No. 1 on the charts three days after its release -- playing with Waters in Chess Studios. Cut to Keith Richards, who says the Stones must have had "brass balls" (brass stones?) to presume they could do justice to Waters' tune.
Goldberg, a bundle of energy at age 70 who says "I'm still happiest when I'm playing," stresses that the blues isn't all about tragedy and disaster. Just last year, he wrote "Havin' A Good Time With The Blues" with Charley Musselwhite and Johnny Lee Schell. After five decades of gigs, including a recent month-long residencyat L.A.'s The Mint, he's bursting to hit the road with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepard, with whom he just cut a blues album.