We commemorate the passing of Hubert Sumlin —Howlin' Wolf's guitarist for nearly 20 years and an immeasurable influence on everyone from Eric Clapton to Robbie Robertson — by reprising Jim Esposito's fly-on-the-wall gem from the Gainesville Sun, originally published on 8 September 1974——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
It's 9.05pm, and backstage at the Howlin' Wolf concert people are getting restless. The eight o'clock show hasn't started yet. In a crowded little room in the bowels of Gainesville's Great Southern Music Hall, several ranking members of Sisa Productions, who are promoting the concert, are huddled in conference.
"We gotta start the show."
"The Wolf ain't even here yet."
"He oughta be here any minute."
The group shoves Randy Preisner, decked out nattily in black tie and lace shirt, on to the stage with strict orders not to return until he introduces Leroy Prophet, the opening act. Randy advances to the microphone with the swaggering stage presence of P.T. Barnum and tries to crack a few jokes that get greeted with jeers and catcalls from the decidedly hostile audience.
"Mixed drinks," someone hypothesizes backstage.
"They think you're stalling," someone else offers.
They were stalling. Randy introduces Leroy because it's the quickest way to get off stage. The crowd heckles Leroy as he tries to develop a rapport, then they calm down and get into his acoustic folk blues. At least the concert's underway.
The people from Sisa are really getting nervous. "Let's go track The Wolf down," one suggests.
"Where's he staying?"
"At the Holiday Inn."
"Which Holiday Inn?"
"Thirteenth Street, I think."
Several exit through the stage entrance. Outside it's a rainy night in Gainesville, or as one of the Wolf's old cohorts, Robert Johnson, once sang, "It's bound to be raining out my door."
There will be two shows at the Great Southern. The second is supposed to start at 11:00 p.m., but it's now pushing 9:15 and Leroy is narrating Howlin' Wolf's life story, interspersing it with some of the Wolf's old tunes. After a while, Laurie Powers walks on stage to help, hyping the audiences on the difference of "Women's blues: softer, more emotional, and a little curvier." Then she sits down at the piano and illustrates her point.
It's now 9:25 and people keep peeping out the back door, hoping to see Howlin' Wolf and reassuring everybody that "they're gonna be here any minute." It's still raining.
Finally, around 9:30, Howlin' Wolf arrives in a Pontiac station wagon towing a homemade plywood U-Haul with "Howlin' Wolf Blues Revue" painted in bold carnival oil colours on the sides and back.
Everybody breathes a sigh of relief.
"All right! The Man is here!"
"Let's get this show on the road!"
With little fanfare Howlin' Wolf walks in and sits down in a canvas-backed director's chair. He's wearing a black and white sport coat striped like a horizontal zebra, a white knit pullover shirt with three plastic buttons beneath his chin, non-descript black trousers, black sox, and pointy black-laced shoes.
Someone closes the door.
"Want another dressing room?" one of the promoters inquire as soon as the Wolf gets comfortable.
"Naw," The Wolf scoffs, sitting back and locking the fingers of his hands on his sizable belly. "This is alright."
The area where Howlin' Wolf sits is either a very tiny dressing room or a really large hallway, about eight by 12, with a red low-pile shag carpet and bare wooden beams for a ceiling. The walls are brick, some red and some whitewashed, except for the wall directly behind the Wolf's chair, which is completely white and covered with autographs in blue ink and black magic marker. Pipes and plumbing hang exposed overhead, and the only light in the room comes from a string of several bare bulbs sticking out of vintage sockets with tiny metal pull-chains.
A constant stream of young longhairs and hippie chicks flows through the room and all stop to say hello, shake the Wolf's hand, and introduce themselves. Wolf always introduces himself as "Wolf."
"How ya doin'?"
Every time the door opens, someone closes it. Wolf is talking to a small group of constantly changing faces who sit in either of the two chairs or cluster around his feet on the floor.
"You wanna beer?" someone asks.
"Can't drink no beer," The Wolf growls. "Ain't got no kidneys. Can't drink no fluids. One kidney's all I got left."
Outside, Leroy and Laurie are singing Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. The other five guys who play with Howlin' Wolf are in the other dressing room where they immediately start de-stocking the beer cooler.
"You guys are on in five minutes."
Another new face wanders by and shakes Wolf's hand.
"Pleasure to have you here."
"Pleasure to be here."
"Can I get you a beer?"
"Can't drink no beer," The Wolf repeats. "Don't got no kidneys. Gotta go on one of those kidney machines every two weeks. If I had some kidneys, I'd drink."
"Rain hold you up?" someone inquires, making small talk.
"No," says Wolf. "I been here." The Wolf wears a pair of plain-framed eyeglasses. His hair is short and wiry, predominantly black, laced with gray.
People keep offering him beer. "Can't drink no beer," The Wolf tells them every time. "Ain't got no kidneys. Used to drink 'til I lost my kidneys."
Detroit Junior, the Wolf's piano player, makes an appearance in the room.
"Here's the man that'll take care of all that beer," Wolf grins, lighting a Kool.
Somebody offers him a root beer. "Can't drink no fluids," Wolf maintains. "Wish I could drink."
Leroy Prophet and Laurie Powers are offstage now. Since their equipment's already set up, Howlin' Wolf's band takes the stage almost immediately. The Wolf stays in the dressing room. He lets his band play for a while before he goes on. New people keep passing through, pausing to shake Wolf's hand and just say "Hi."
"We've got a lot of food upstairs if you're hungry," someone offers.
"I'm fine," The Wolf replies.
Somebody asks about the album Wolf did in London with Muddy Waters.
"Didn't do no album with Muddy," Wolf tells him. "Me and Bo [Diddley] mixed some wax up in Chicago, but I never done nothin' with Muddy."
Everybody wants to talk to Howlin' Wolf. Whenever there's a lull in the action, somebody appropriates the opportunity to pop one of their pet questions.
"Farming's always been my business," The Wolf tells his little group. "I just play blues for fun. I raise corn and cattle and soybeans. Soybeans are a good cash crop. I got about 65 acres on the Tennessee-Mississippi line."
Wolf launches into an entire dissertation on soybeans, and then farming in general. "I feeds a lot of soybeans to my cattle. I got Black Angus, and Jersey cows, and some others."
"Got a match?" somebody asks.
Wolf keeps talking about farming as he stretches his frame and fumbles through his pants pockets. "I get pretty good money for my corn." The Wolf extols his theory of farming. "I do everything the old way. Other farms collect corn with machines," he says. "I use mules. Can't pick corn with machines when it rains. It's alright to have a tractor in dry weather. When it's wet, you need a mule."
Nobody pays too much attention to the words, but everybody listens to the man. In the background everybody can hear Howlin' Wolf's band running through some uninspired, low-key Chicago blues. Wolf's still rapping about how mules won't leave tire marks on your soybean seeds.
"Hey Wolf," someone says. "You gotta sign our wall." "Sure," says Wolf.
People scurry off to scrounge up a magic marker. A Bic pen ain't good enough for Howlin' Wolf. Somebody returns with a red magic marker. Wolf stands up, turns around to face the wall. Somebody pulls his chair out of his way. The Wolf is looking for an empty spot on the wall, where he won't obscure anybody else's name. The wall is very full, and it's hard.
"Let's start a new layer," suggests Bruce Schwack, one of the principles in Sisa Productions.
The Wolf starts scrawling his name across the wall at about eye level — slowly, very slowly. He draws a big capital H in halting script, then a small 0, and a distorted W that looks like three undotted small I's right in a row, then a big loopy L, and an invisible I that's lost in the curve of his small N. Wolf doesn't put the apostrophe afterward. He takes a look at his handiwork. "Howlin" is the biggest thing on the wall: its red letters completely upstaging everything else. He scribbles the "Wolf" considerably smaller and less legibly, half because he doesn't wanna mark over Ray Charles.
With his monogram finally preserved for prosperity on the wall of the Great Southern, Wolf retreats to his seat, starts talking about the weather. Everybody listens, hand to their chins. Wolf's band finishes a number on stage and in the quiet between songs you can hear people in the audience screaming for Howlin' Wolf.
"The people are ready for you," someone interjects. "Ready for you right now."
In response to a question from Leroy Prophet, Wolf starts talking about all the people he's played with: the most legendary black bluesmen whose path had intertwined through Chicago and Chess Records.
"You know I used to have a radio show," he tells everybody. "That's how I started foolin' around with recording. With my brother-in-law [Sonny Boy Williamson]."
Somebody asks what kind of guitar he's going to use on stage.
"No guitar," The Wolf growls. "Don't use no guitar."
Then he tells why. It takes about 10 minutes because it leads him off onto a whole tangent about what kinds of guitars he likes, and what kinds of guitars he uses, and what kinds of guitars he owns, and what kinds of guitars he prefers. Then he starts talking about where he's played. "Never been to Texas," says the Wolf. "Maybe I'll get there yet."
Another person, maybe the same guy as before, asks about the album Wolf did in London with Muddy Waters. Once again, The Wolf denies it. "I never fool with Muddy. He's too jealous. Muddy's a nice man, but he's jealous. He really hates to see anyone play better than him. I was taught music. Some folks get taught. Others pick it up. Muddy picked it up.
"I did an album in London with the Rolling Stones and Beatles," Howlin' continued, referring to his London Sessions, one of the world's great blues records. Backing the Wolf were Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. "All the Rolling Stones was on it. All of 'em."
"How long did it take to record that album?"
"Took us three hours."
"Three hours?" gasps an incredulous bystander. Albums usually take weeks, months to record.
"Yeah," says The Wolf. "We weren't in no hurry."
He flicks his cigarette ash into an empty Heineken bottle, then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little brown plastic pill bottle with a subscription label. He snaps the cap off, shakes a single tiny white pill into his palm and catapults it into the darker recesses of his open mouth. A glycerin tablet, he explains. "Got a bad heart," growls the Wolf, holding out the left lapel of his sport coat.
On stage, outside, the band has stopped playing. Eddie Sharp, the saxophone player, is talking to the crowd, talking about Howlin' Wolf. The crowd is getting excited. Who knows what time it is by now and they've been waiting for Howlin' Wolf since eight o'clock. The Wolf stands up and excuses himself. Everybody watches as he lumbers out the dressing room door, one hand feeling his coat pocket to make sure he's packing his trusty Blues Harp. He turns the corner, walks up a little flight of stairs and unceremoniously steps out on stage.
"The world's greatest blues picker!" Eddie Sharp screams into the microphone over and over. "The world's greatest blues picker!"
A bright blue spotlight catches The Wolf at stage right. The crowd cheers. The Wolf waves. Hubert Sumlin, his guitarist, riffs frantically into the intro of Highway 49 and the audience jumps to their feet, begins to boogie. Howlin' Wolf lumbers slowly towards a wooden stool in the centre of the stage. The spotlight follows. He takes off his coat, hands it to Detroit Junior. Then The Wolf picks up his microphone, half-sits on the stool, starts singing the blues.
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