Sunday, July 18, 2010

Best of the Biggest: Howlin' Wolf

When I first became interested in blues I lived in the sticks outside of Sacramento. The only place to buy records within miles of my house was a discount store called “Rasco Tempo, a Division of Gamble-Skogmo, Incorporated.” (You can’t make that up.) I don’t remember much about the place except for two things. Years before we moved from a more central location into the sticks, that’s where we bought a $50 pool table that eventually became rendered useless when an angry teenager (not me) flipped it onto its side and kicked a volcano shape into the particle board surface below the felt. That’s the first thing. The other thing I remember is the record section. It’s where I bought my first Chuck Berry record ( read that story here), and it’s where I bought, for 66 cents, a record from United Superior Records called “Best of the Biggest.” That might sound like a deal, but later I peeled off the price sticker and learned it had been marked up from 44 cents.

Sometimes you buy bargain records that are complete horsepucky. I remember picking up a “Jimi Hendrix” record for a dollar or so from a supermarket rack. The notes were by some French guy who wrote that “Jimi laughed ecstatically when he heard what we had created.” I’m sure he laughed, all right. (If he’d seen my face when I heard it he would have laughed harder.)

But sometimes you get what they say you’re going to get.

“Best of the Biggest” was a musical education in the blues and R & B. It had two songs each by Ray Charles, B. B. King, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bobby Bland. And these weren’t filler. One of B. B. King’s selections was “Rock Me Baby.” John Lee Hooker was represented by “Boogie Chillen.” Bobby Bland had “Drifting from Town to Town.”

Elmore James—well, they kind of sort of cheated by giving us “Dust My Blues” instead of “Dust My Broom.” It must have been an effort to avoid copyright problems-- but it was the same dang song.

And anyway, 12 songs, 66 cents. That’s 3 cents a piece!

So I felt I had a bargain there even after I peeled off the label and found that I had been cheated by 22 cents. (You can figure it in today’s dollar by knowing that in 1971, assuming I could drive, I could have bought a gallon of discount gas for 25 cents. Or, maybe, one McDonald’s cheeseburger.)

Anyway, I still love that album. At the time it was an education. I knew B. B. and Ray Charles, but I didn’t know any of the rest of them—so it represented my very first exposure to Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Bland, and my favorite at the time, Howlin’ Wolf.

As I say, I didn’t know Howlin’ Wolf. I was a kid from the suburbs. The sticks, at that point. But he was there, waiting for me, at Rasco Tempo.

I did know Wolfman Jack—the late night DJ we could hear playing old songs on long trips. You had to be further out in the sticks to hear him broadcast on 50,000 watt clear channel radio stations from far away that felt like visitations from outer space. Wolfman Jack would later become mainstream famous—a television celebrity—but at the time he was a ragged, pinched, nasal voice of mystery on late night radio.

He was Howlin’ Wolf’s voice, simplified, without the music or the soul or the power. He took Howlin' Wolf's voice, or tried to.

He didn't get it, of course. But Wolfman Jack probably played a lot of Howlin' Wolf in his day.

Recently I read  “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. It’s a great book with a great cover shot of Wolf’s face, close up, dragging on a cigarette and about to grab it with his pointer and thumb. Here's a website for the authors:

Flipping through the photographs inside the book I learned, with a bit of melancholy, that one of Howlin’ Wolf’s last performances was a mile or so from where I’m sitting, at Sick’s Stadium, a minor league (and for one year, major league) stadium that I only saw once or twice when first visited Seattle (and which was then razed to build a concrete box that is now a home improvement store). The show happened a couple of years before I moved to Seattle, so I couldn’t have been there-- but it seems so close.

The song I used to love on “Best of the Biggest” was called “Riding in the Moonlight,” a seriously crazy and wonderful blues romp where Howlin’ Wolf asks his baby to “ride with daddy tonight.” ("Oh baby! I'm'o give you an auto-mobile!") I have played it thousands of times over the decades. Wolf sounds almost like he’s growling through an old fashioned megaphone, with drums echoing from a trash can. The guitar is close to shredding the speakers. The harmonica is wailing with a kind of crazy zazoo band feel. It’s a record that introduced me to everything Taj Mahal was trying to do in his great first album. It’s a record that has me riding along with Wolf and his baby, a participant/observer, wind in my hair, shivers up my spine, neon lights flashing in the darkness, a little worried about the girl, but knowing she’s in it voluntarily with a grin on her face.

I played this song for someone a month or so ago, after he told me he liked Howlin’ Wolf. I think it worried him.

What thrills me now, reading the biography, is knowing for the first time that it was the first song he recorded as a demo; with Sam Phillips; that he recorded it again with Phillips just a few weeks later; and that the version on “Best of the Biggest” was recorded for the Bihari brothers a few months after that. He recorded it three times in a year! That’s how good it was.

My copy cost me 3 cents, when Wolf was still alive.

The Bihari brothers paid Wolf $25 for it.

And he played one of his last shows, sick as can be, about a mile from here, after treatment up the hill at the old veterans’ hospital.

The world is a mystery as deep as Wolf himself.

Here's a version of 'Dust My Broom" from a man who used to travel with Robert Johnson AND Elmore James.

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