Saturday, July 24, 2010

The True Story of Dr. Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Mr. Wolf: An Interview with Author/Musician Mark Hoffman

If you read this blog you know that for a month or so I was Howling for Mr. Howlin' Wolf.  For decades I knew him mostly from a couple of compilations that were in my thin selection of music.  One I bought for 66 cents, marked up from 44-- with two each by Wolf, B.B. King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Bland and Elmore James.  (Three cents a song, retail!  How much did those artists get?)  Then, a few years ago, I saw Cadillac records, and loved the portrayal of Howlin' Wolf in that movie; and not long after, I supplemented my meager Wolf collection with a "greatest hits" album from Chess.  A little after that I played "Killin' Floor" a couple of times with members of a semi pro blues band who generously allowed me to add my noise to their music.  (We either killed the song, or didn't, depending on your level of slang.)  I also read the story in John Collis' book about Chuck Berry where Berry arrived at a show without a guitar and grabbed Wolf's.  (That's guts!)  The story ended with Chuck Berry on stage apologizing to Wolf.  (That's Wolf!.) 

And then, one day I walked into the new Elliott Bay Bookstore and found a slightly tattered copy of the book "Moanin' at Midnight" by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. 

I couldn't buy it that day because I'd just been given books about B.B. King and Thelonious Monk, and I was still working on a monster of a book about Willie Mays.  I'm a slow reader.  I didn't want to add to the pile of guilt on my Readin' Floor.

And besides-- the copy I first saw was a little dog-eared.  Other blues fans had spent a bit too much time with it in the store.

But a few weeks later, I couldn't help myself.  I went back.  There were two fresh new copies.  I bought one.

And I loved it.  And I couldn't help noticing that one of the authors, Mark Hoffman, was a ferry ride away on Bainbridge Island.  Too shy to hop a boat, I sent an e-mail-- and here is the generous result.

You started out playing music with Robert Cray! (Or maybe Cray started playing music with you!) Tell us about that. And how soon did you start getting into the blues.

Yes, I knew Bob Cray a bit in high school when I lived in Lakewood, south of Tacoma. He was a friend of a couple of younger guys in the band I was in, and he used to come over on occasion and jam with us. He was a really good singer and guitarist even then, though not the best guitarist I knew at the time. A kid in another band I played in was even better. (He’s since gone on to greatness as a salesman, he said with a sad shrug.) The first few times I heard Bob play, I was impressed mostly by his voice, which is so often a gift from God or Genes, whichever you believe in.

When I and another guy in my band went off to college, the younger guys in the band reformed it with Bob and another guy named Rocky who sang, played harp, and was a charismatic front man—shades of Curtis Salgado. Bob was kind of shy at that point, and he would often turn his back on the audience when he played. He used to bring a friend with him sometimes to our jam sessions: Bobby Murray, who now plays guitar for Etta James, and was even back then quite a guitarist. They used to come over with Richard Cousins, who’s played bass in Bob’s band off and on for 30 years and played with lots of other great musicians. So it was quite a scene for a bunch of high school kids.

One time when I was in my first year of college, we reunited the band to do a jam session at a dorm at the University of Washington. That was the first time I was really knocked out by Bob’s guitar playing. I hadn’t listened to him closely enough before, so it seemed he’d grown in one year from just a competent guitarist to a flashy one. We did Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” and Bob played it note for note and blew everyone away. At that point in his career, he played lot of Hendrix stuff, though he doesn’t play in that over-the-top style at all now.

I started getting into the blues in high school. A couple of the guys in my band were listening to a lot of Magic Sam, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, and they turned me on to that stuff. I can’t say I was knocked out by Chicago blues at first. I preferred to listen to that genre’s undergrowth: Cream, Hendrix, the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles, the Animals, and the rest. But when I was in my early 30s, I started listening to a lot of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and that led me back to Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Skip James, Son House, Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Arthur Blake, Willie McTell, Gary Davis, Memphis Minnie, and all those 1930s artists, who were simply astounding musicians.

This is too big a question, but why not?   What is it about the blues? What is it that gets to you in particular?

For me it’s about the raw emotion in the blues. I have a degree in English Literature, and I’ve read a lot of English poetry from Beowulf on. The greatest blues lyrics are as well-crafted and moving as any lyric poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, or Yeats. And of course those great blues lyrics are all delivered through music, which makes them even more powerful. The best blues songs are like country music: three chords and the truth. Of course, country music is heavily indebted to the blues and vice versa; country music came from European-Americans singing African-influenced music, and blues came from African-Americans singing European-influenced music. That’s the power and delight of American music—those hybrid influences. Before the advent of modern segmented music marketing, they didn’t put country and blues records in different bins or play them at different times on the radio, so you’d hear everything. Every good musician I know listens to everybody anyway.

So what gets to me about the blues is the emotion, delivered through poetic lines that link together with the solid inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Listen to a great blues song and you’re tangled in the big conundrums of life: love and death and everything important in between. Some people call blues “death music,” because it is all about Thanatos and Eros.

I also like the rhythmic aspects of the blues, which come mostly from its African influence. I love the power that a lot of blues songs have to make you want to shake your ass and scream out the lyrics and play air guitar simultaneously. I’m not too old to do that, thank God, and I hope I never am.

Music is rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, and dynamics. European folk music has powerful rhythms, but in European classical music, the rhythm, timbre, and dynamics became much less important than the melody, harmony, and tempo. Blues and country and bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll brought the dance rhythms back and made them important. No wonder Chuck Berry sang, “Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news!”

A lot of blues songs make me laugh because they’re very funny in an earthy or absurd way. I was listening to a blues song today that made me laugh out loud: Wolf’s “Do the Do” from the “London Sessions” album. Sample lyrics:

34 bust, 20 in the waist—everything right in place.

A cool disposition. You’ll love her, too

When you see her do the do. Do the do. Do the do.

For my money, song lyrics don’t get more absurd and funny than that!

Howlin’ Wolf surprised me. When I first heard his records I heard the raw power of it. But when I read and heard more about his life, I was struck by the civility and refinement: his marriage, his professionalism, his insistence on paying benefits to his musicians way back in the 1950s. Can you expand or comment?

Wolf was really different onstage and off. Onstage, he would do anything to win over a crowd, including glowering, clowning, and acting strange. He was mercurial as hell, so you just couldn’t stop watching him because he was always up to something onstage. Music was his life and his art, but it was also a business for him, a way to make a decent living. They call it show business, two words, and Wolf knew there was no show without the business. And despite his reputation—mostly caused by his glowering and wild man act onstage and his wariness and reserve around people he didn’t know—he was a gentlemanly, caring, and sweet man. He was very fatherly towards younger musicians and younger people in general. We heard variations on that from at least 30 of the people we interviewed for the book: “Wolf was like a father to me…He took me under his wing and taught me how to survive in the music business…He used to give me life lessons.”

Wolf was a hard-headed businessman because he had to be. It was the only way to survive in the cesspool that was the music business back in the 1950s and 1960s. Musicians like Wolf were rarely literate and numerate and didn’t have access to entertainment lawyers or accountants or anyone else who would watch out for their interests. So Wolf and practically everyone else got ripped off every time they signed a contract. Wolf was street-smart enough to know that he was getting ripped off, too. In 1974, he’d finally had enough, and he sued ARC Music, the song publishing business run by the Chess brothers and Benny Goodman’s brother. After Wolf died, his wife started getting bigger royalty checks from ARC Music. But he was getting royalties even before then; I saw the ledgers, and he was making thousands of dollars a year from the few songs that he wrote. But ARC Music was making a lot more, and Wolf wanted part of it. Funny thing is, and we didn’t write about this in the book, Wolf copyrighted “Sitting on Top of the World” as his own song, though it was written by Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks. His widow successfully sued Wolf to get the copyright back! I regret that we didn’t put that in the book. I don’t think Wolf quite understood the concept of “original composition.” I don’t think many of the old blues guys did, because they all recycled lyrics all the time.

Wolf had a pretty happy last marriage with Lillie Burnett. He’d been married once before, unhappily, and had had many relationships with other women, including one with another woman named Lillie, but Little #2 was probably his happiest relationship. She was educated and stable, and he was finally making good money and able to buy a house and settle down, so it was the happiest time of his life, I think. After his wild Delta years, he had to settle down! By the late 1950s, he’d survived several knifings and shootings, a near lynching, and a nervous breakdown, so he wanted and needed that marital stability.

One funny story I heard about his marriage: Peter Amft, the photographer who took the cover shot for our book went over to Wolf’s house to meet him for the shoot in 1970, the year that Wolf had his first heart attack. Lillie Burnett met Peter at the door and turned to Wolf and said, “That photographer is here, Wolf. I want you to be nice to him now, OK?” “Yes, Lillie.” “Don’t give him a bad time.” “No, Lillie.” Wolf and Peter went down into Wolf’s lair in the basement, where he practiced and wrote songs. But it was full of nice antique furniture that was covered with doilies and lace. Peter said it looked like Little Red Riding Hood’s house, not the Big Bad Wolf’s! And Lillie kept calling down to Wolf, “Are you being nice to that boy?” “Yes, Lillie!” Peter started shooting and was trying to get Wolf to look angry and mean, but Wolf only gave him angelic looks. Then Wolf lit a cigarette and whispered, “Don’t tell Lillie because I’m not supposed to be smoking.” So Peter waited until Wolf had the cigarette in his mouth and had turned away, from him, and when he turned back around, Peter stuck the camera right in his face and snapped the shot! The Big Bad Wolf just didn’t want the little woman to know that he was smoking! That’s how Peter got the shot that we used on the cover of our book: Wolf glowering and pulling a cigarette out of his mouth.

Did you ever see him perform? And what would you give to travel back to 1950s or 1960s Chicago?

I never saw Wolf perform, alas. I was playing in a blues band here in Seattle in 1975, and Wolf did one of his last shows here, but for some reason, I never heard about it. I’d give anything to be able to go back in time and see him at that show. He was in bad shape by then, but it would’ve been worth it anyway. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve asked him about Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson and those guys, and then asked him what happened to him in the Army that caused him to have a nervous breakdown. And I would’ve asked him about his girlfriend Lillie (not his wife Lillie) whom he lived with during the last days of World War II down in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. He got thrown out of the Army because he had a nervous breakdown. She’d just left her husband two years before for Wolf, despite the fact that she was very religious. And when Wolf left her, she had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized in the state asylum! Her own mother signed the commitment papers. We discovered a lot of amazing stories like that about Wolf and the people in his early life.

This is a Chuck Berry site. Did you know that Wolf and Elmore James were the first two people Chuck saw perform when he went to Chicago to sell Maybellene?

I had no idea. I never did interview Chuck for the book. I tried to, but I couldn’t get his manager to return my calls. I heard that Wolf and Chuck didn’t get along, but I would’ve liked to have heard that from Chuck. I did interview Johnnie Johnson for the book. He was sitting next to me at a club in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure it was him, but I finally introduced myself, and sure enough, it was him. What a nice man, and what an amazing pianist.

Even though they are so different, I couldn’t help being struck by similarities between the two men: professionalism, self-improvement, and an incredible sense of dignity. Can you add to that?

You nailed it. They both were consummate professionals who were into self-improvement and stood up for themselves and wouldn’t take a lot of shit from anyone. They did that in a time when black men were expected to bow their heads and shuck and jive. They both got in trouble with the law over white women, too. Chuck’s bullshit Mann Act violation is well known. Wolf almost got lynched from singing a song to a white woman who invited him onto her porch. I suspect she was attracted to Wolf, but her husband came home and caught Wolf singing to her. The next week, he swore x he saw Wolf prowling around their house, and he called the sheriff. Fortunately, Wolf had an alibi—he was playing music at the time. The sheriff kept Wolf in jail overnight and then let him go.

Wolf also killed a man over a women. She’d gone home with Wolf after a show, but her boyfriend found out about it and beat her up. Wolf found out about it and confronted the guy on the guy’s front porch. The guy pulled a knife on Wolf, but unfortunately for the guy, Wolf was carrying a cotton hoe. He hit the guy over the head with it and took the top of his head clean off, killing him instantly. Wolf hid out from a posse and got away. He wasn’t proud of killing that guy, either. Years later, he wrote “Killing Floor,” which was partly about that incident, and maybe an attempt to exorcise that ghost from his past.

Tell a bit about your research for the book “Moanin’ at Midnight.” You seem to have gone everywhere and met everyone.

I and my co-author, James Segrest, interviewed about 250 people for the book, including more than 100 people who played music with him, plus a lot of people from his early years. I interviewed some of his childhood friends and his first girlfriend, whom I met on my first research trip to Mississippi in 1994. James interviewed a lot of people who knew Wolf in the in Mississippi Delta back in the 1930s and 1940s. He’d spend part of every summer working for his friend’s record store in Drew, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, and he’d go out on weekends and find people who knew Wolf 80 years ago, which was quite a feat, and pretty much impossible to do now because everyone who knew Wolf well then is dead now.

To me, it was all an adventure. It was like following a mystery story from decades ago. And interviewing some of these people from the Mississippi was like interviewing people who lived in the 14th century in a feudal society. The racism was so awful that even when I interviewed them in the 1990s, some of them were afraid to talk about it. Growing up in a poor agricultural society was hard enough, but when you add the racism, which made it almost impossible for them to get ahead, it was brutal. Most people today have no idea how bad it was; I just got a taste of it second-hand. It was one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever researched. I suppose talking to people in North Korea or dissidents in Burma today might be the equivalent.

Did you get to make music with any of the musicians you write about? Tell us about that.

I played guitar a few times with Hubert Sumlin. I spent three days with him one time, and he taught me some licks, like the one to “Smokestack Lightning.” He also played guitar while I did my Wolf impression, which he said was really good—but Hubert is an easy audience!

When I go on youtube I am always amazed at the generosity of Hubert Sumlin. He is everywhere on video teaching people to play those amazing licks. And every lick seems to put a big smile on his face.

Yes, he’s generous that way. He’s a nice guy, and fun to play with. He’s only ungenerous with the truth. We were warned about that by a couple of people when he was started working on the book. Hubert’s a complete gypsy, and like most gypsies, you can’t always trust what he tells you. He sent us on some epic wild goose chases as we tried to verify stories that turned out to be nonsense—what we called “Hubert stories.” For example, he told us that Wolf knew Elvis’s parents really well, and Elvis’s dad, Vernon, took Elvis to see Wolf play when Elvis was a child. It didn’t sound farfetched because Vernon was born in West Point, Mississippi, close to where Wolf was born, and they weren’t far apart in age, and they both worked on farms in Northern Mississippi as young men. I started researching it by contacting people in Tupelo who knew Elvis when he was a kid. I talked to a couple of his childhood friends and neither of them knew anything about it. I talked to a few bluesmen from around the Tupelo area, and they told me that the only bluesman who was old enough to know if it was true had just died. I talked to some other people at the Elvis museum in Tupelo, and they’d never heard the story. I finally wrote to Peter Guralnick, the famous Elvis biographer, and he thought it was nonsense because he’d done incredibly in-depth research but he’d never heard this story—and he was a Howlin’ Wolf expert! (In fact, he was the guy I always was afraid might write the big Howlin’ Wolf biography before we did.) After several weeks of trying to verify this alleged Wolf/Elvis connection, we finally figured it was just another Hubert story. There were others like that!

On the other hand, Hubert told us a couple of stories that we thought were whoppers that turned out to be true. One was that James Cotton was going out with Lillie, Wolf’s last wife, before Wolf met her. That didn’t make sense because Lillie was a lot older than Cotton and supposedly a straight-laced middle-aged widow who didn’t like bluesmen when she met Wolf. So why would she have been going out with a wild man like Cotton who was in his 20s at the time? But we used a reliable third party to verify this story with Cotton, and he verified it! Hubert knew that because Cotton is his oldest living friend.

So that was the problem with Hubert: It was damn near impossible to figure out when he was telling us the truth. As I said, we were warned.

What did you think of the portrayal of Wolf in Cadillac Records?

I thought that Eamonn Walker was spectacular as Wolf. Before I saw that film, I couldn’t imagine anyone playing Wolf onscreen, and now I can’t imagine anyone else but Eamonn Walker playing him. He played Wolf as a kind of menacing guy, but at times he also brought out Wolf’s sweet side, which is not easy to do in the short time he had onscreen. And Walker isn’t a huge guy of 6 feet 4 inches like Wolf was, but you didn’t notice that. Walker played him big. So he did a hell of a job. He used our book for research—there isn’t much else about Wolf available. Jeffrey Wright, who played Muddy, was great, too, and I liked Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Really, everyone in that film was good. The only problem with it was that they tried to put too many characters into a two-hour movie, so they had to fictionalize a lot to have a story line that you could follow, and except for the leads—Muddy and Leonard Chess and Etta James—the whole film had to be done in cinematic shorthand. Eamonn Walker, for example, mostly played the angry, glowering side of Wolf, not the funny side, and Wolf was a very funny guy. I’m sure he would’ve done some clowning if it was in the script, but there was no time for that with all the other characters to follow.

On the other hand, if you knew nothing or very little about Chicago blues, you got a good taste of it from that film and learned what the people who created it were like. The band that did the music for it was outstanding—Steve Jordan and Kim Wilson and all those great players. And as I said, the acting was very good all around. So “Cadillac Records” was well done in those ways. I just wish they’d had a bigger budget and could’ve done a bigger film, and had better promotion. Getting that film made for $10 million was no easy feat, I’m sure. I thought Jeffrey Wright and Eamonn Walker, at least, should’ve been nominated for Academy Awards.

Where can people get your book about Wolf? or any online retailer, and it’s still in some bookstores. You know—the places where you can actually see and hold the book before you buy it.

Any new books coming out?

I’ve got an idea for one, but I have to research it and see if it’s viable. If it is, it’ll take me a couple of years to finish it.

Any prospects of reviving the high school band?

I wish. I often think that if we’d kept that band together, we could’ve been one of the legendary American bands like Los Lobos or the Band or the Dead. We got together again about 20 years ago for a party, and we sounded great! But realistically, we’ll never play again. I don’t even play drums anymore. I’m a guitarist and singer now, and I dabble a bit in mandolin.

You can find more about the book, and about its authors, or to buy it, click here!

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