The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Prowlin’ with the Wolf in Gainesville
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."