54. Howlin' Wolf
By Buddy Guy
That man was the natural stuff. When I first heard Howlin' Wolf's records, I thought that deep, scratchy voice was a fake voice, just the way he sang — until I met him. He said, "Hello," and I thought, "Uh-oh, this isn't fake. This is for real." Wolf's conversation was the same as his singing. Matter of fact, the first time I met him, I started tapping my feet as he was talking.
His first big records, like "Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years" — I'd hear them on the radio when I was still in Louisiana, on WLAC out of Nashville. We had an old battery-powered radio, and we'd listen to this half-hour program that came on at night. I'd hear the man's voice and try to picture what he looked like. I thought he was a big, light-skinned guy. Then I went up to Chicago — September 25th, 1957. The next year, I was meeting all of the great blues musicians: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf. And when I saw Wolf, yes, he was a big guy. But he wasn't light-skinned at all. Boy, was I wrong.
And he used to put on such a show. He would get down on the floor, crawl like a wolf and sing in that voice: "I'm a tail dragger." He would do this boogie-woogie thing, around and around — like the kids used to do with the hula hoops, where you had to go around and around at your waist, to keep the hoop going. That was the kind of shit he was doing. I'd see that and think, "Man, there goes the Wolf."
He was so exciting to be on a show with. Wolf was a big man, but he could really move. It was like when the Chicago Bears had that player the Refrigerator. People think football players can't move when they're that big. And people expected the Wolf, because he was such a big guy, to just sit in a chair and belt it out. No, man, he had all that action. He had everything you wanted to see. He'd crawl around, jump around. His fists were as big as a car tire. And he would ball that fist up. When I started getting calls to come and play on some cuts behind him, I'd think, "Oh, shit, I better play right." I'd heard he was mean. I was told that. But, you know, I never had a cross word with the man the whole time, right up to when he passed away.
The reason I got a chance to play on sessions with him — on songs like "Killing Floor," "Built for Comfort" and "300 Pounds of Joy" — and a lot of musicians better than me didn't get those dates, was because they would come in thinking, "This is my opportunity to blow the Wolf offstage." There was no way I could say that. This was my opportunity to learn something from the Wolf. But Wolf was not a demanding person. If you played something that made him smile, he would look back at you with that smile. When he did, to me, I was getting paid.
I played with Muddy, too, and it was so great to play with both of them. I heard a rumor that Wolf and Muddy didn't get along — I never saw that. Jimmy Rogers, who played in Muddy's band, used to laugh and joke about what Wolf had to say about Muddy and what Muddy would say back. But all of them talked bad about each other, calling everyone "motherfucker." That was their thing. With musicians, " motherfucker" was the love word. And when Wolf said, "Motherfucker, you can't play," what he was really saying was, "I'm gonna fire your ass up. If I tell you you can't play, then you're gonna bring it on." This is the way Wolf treated you. That would signify for you to show your shit.
Everything you wanted was right there, touchable to me, in that voice — even when Wolf wasn't singing. We used to have these Blue Mondays in Chicago that would start at seven o'clock in the morning. That's when we'd all get together after playing and just do a conversation, man. I would sit and listen to Wolf talk. It didn't have to be about music. He loved fishing, he loved sports. To me, it all sounded like music from heaven.
People don't know him the way they should now. When Muddy died, they interviewed me on television, and they asked me, "What should be done?" I said most cities with famous musicians, like Chicago — they end up naming a street or something after them. And they got the street that Muddy lived on most of his life named after him. But it never happened for Wolf. And the younger generation coming up now — if you don't talk about the music or the artists, they don't know them. My children didn't know who I was until they were 21 and were able to come in the clubs and see me.
We got to go back and do some digging. We have to let people know that Howlin' Wolf — and Muddy and Little Walter and all these cats — made Chicago the world capital of the blues. Chess Records is a landmark. But who made Chess Records? What about those people we done forgot about, like Wolf?