He was known as The Wolf. Chester Burnett, aka The Howlin Wolf, was a giant of a man. At 6 foot 3″ and 300 pounds, his physical presence was, well, substantial. However, it was his music, and the impact that his music has had on everything that followed that makes him a true giant.
The last time I saw Wolf live was not long before his death in 1976. He was unashamed of the tubes embedded in his arm that were needed to hook up to the kidney dialysis machine that was keeping him alive. He still gave an outrageous, and energetic show at The Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Connecticut.
Man, I love his music to this day. I spend a lot of time listening to the songs I’m currently working on, and a lot of time checking out new music, new artists, and new production. Honestly, I don’t do a lot of listening purely for the joy of it.
Every once in a while, though, I’ll put the work aside, and like visiting a dear friend, put some Wolf on the studio nearfields.
So here’s what this post is really about. I get chills listening to The Howlin Wolf. I get chills when I hear John Lee Hooker’s voice in the night. Those voices, and the voices of some of their peers came from a powerful and hard life experience. Their music came from a truly American experience. A life that was all too real and challenging, a life experience that does not exist today.
There are still really cool blues records being made. There are virtuoso blues musicians that I have the utmost respect for, but for me the chill is gone. I don’t get the chills when I listen to the recreation of that style. I just don’t.
And so, when I’m faced with the prospect of producing a blues record in 2013 and beyond, I want to make sure it doesn’t become a tribute to the past. I want it to stand on its own and reflect the American Experience of the second decade of the 21st century. There’s more than enough real life to reflect on, and shout about. I’m betting there’s a future record out there that might give you the chills.
Billy Preston live in 1971. You think maybe he was a bit ahead of his time? 3 keyboard players, including bass on the original synth (the mighty Hammond B-3). Four piece horn section, no guitar to be seen or heard anywhere.
I first played with Otis Spann in January of my senior year in High School. When he asked me to “join his band”, and I told him that I could be in Chicago in June because I’d promised my parents I would graduate from high school. He didn’t have a phone, he didn’t have a band, and he’d recently left Muddy Water’s band to strike out on his own.
I read the Village Voice every week, and when I saw that Otis was playing at The Cafe a Go Go during my spring break, I grabbed my guitar, hitchhiked to New York City and showed up at the ‘gig’.
Spann didn’t miss a beat, telling everyone in the room “See here’s my guitar player now.” There even was a band: SP Leary on drums, Johnny Young on mandolin, Lucille Spann on vocals, and occasionally Luther ‘Georgia Boy Snake’ Johnson also on guitar. There was no bass player. Then there was “The Queen” Victoria Spivey. For those movie buffs who remember Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, The Queen was the blues equivalent of Norma Desmond. She’d been a young blues singing star many decades past, and now lived in Brooklyn with her husband. They owned a small record label whose claim to fame was recording a very young Bob Dylan when he first hit the village. They also recorded the Chicago blues greats when they passed through New York.
The first set at the A Go Go was uneventful, until the curtain that separated the dark club from the entrance opened and in walked The Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Big Mama Thornton. It was amazing! Muddy Waters was in town, too. It seemed as if the entire Chicago Blues Royalty was in The West Village.
After the first night, The Queen (who spoke to everyone as her child) told me “Your father (her husband) and I were talking about you last night. We want you to record an album with Spann. We’re going to do it tomorrow.”
Nola Penthouse Studios was literally a penthouse space in Midtown Manhattan. It was large, with high ceilings. The control room featured a THREE track tape machine. The Queen couldn’t budget for the 3 track, and we recorded to mono – ONE track, recorded and mixed in real time! I’m sure there’s other pages about Nola out there, but here’s a link to some information about Nola Penthouse Studio. It had a fascinating history, and many iconic Candid Records jazz albums were recorded there in the ’50s and ’60s.
We set up. Spann on the grand piano, there was a mic for Johnny Young’s mandolin, and Luther Snake Johnson was there. Both Luther and my guitar amps were mic’d. S.P. Leary brought his kit which was also set up and mic’d.
The Queen paid us in advance for the session. We each got an envelope with $30 cash, and there was a fifth of whiskey to share.
The session began, and after we played 3 or 4 chicago blues standards, The Queen tripped over Luther’s guitar chord. The chord was cheap and snapped off right by the amplifier jack. Unbelievably, there was no other guitar chord in the studio, and consequently, Luther appears on only half of the album.
Spann passed away at the age of 40 just about a year after the recording session. The album didn’t come out for another year, and as you can see on the cover my name was almost spelled correctly. Honored to have been a part of it at the age of 17. Too cool.
And into the present…
I decided to write this post because that one track session at Nola Penthouse Studio is as much a part of me, as working on a 150 track session with programmed drums and Virtual Synths is today. I feel that my work is solidly rooted in the present, but also informed by the past, and I’m proud to have that foundation as the starting point in my work.
Yes, that beautiful 1966 Gibson J-50 has issues. I took it into McCabe’s Guitar Shop and after some orthopedic surgery, it came home to recuperate. Now it’s back in the hospital, and I’m waiting for the doctor’s report.
I grew up with old Fender Guitars. My friend Dave has run over his ‘60’s P-Bass with a van 3 times that I know of. No issues, no problem. A Fender guitar is like Johnny Knoxville.
A Gibson acoustic is like your high school friend who couldn’t go out to the movies because of a sinus problem.