Moanin’ At Midnight:the Life And Times Of Howlin’ Wolf
Sam Phillips famously said after hearing Howlin’ Wolf’s music, “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.” Yet, for all his acclaim, this is the first comprehensive biography of the man who looms large — both literally and figuratively — in music history.
Wolf made his very first recordings with Phillips in 1951, and his last 22 years later, at the Chess Studios in Chicago in 1973. The intervening years saw a mammoth change in the music industry, but Wolf had already lived a lifetime before he’d stepped into a studio in his 40s. Born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, Wolf suffered the indignities all African-Americans experienced in the south in the early 20th century. Furthermore, his family life revolved around an interminable cycle of hard work, near starvation, and physical abuse.
An undercurrent of violence continued to ripple through Wolf’s adult life as well. The authors describe a club world where a musician defecting to another band ran the risk of grievous bodily harm from his former employer, not to mention the brawling that routinely broke out in the audience. Wolf himself comes across as a domineering autocrat, ruling with something of an iron fist. (The book says he once told his guitarist Hubert Sumlin, “I like you, but you ain’t great. Don’t never let nobody tell you that you are the best in the world…guitar players are a dime a dozen with me.”)
The authors have managed to track down seemingly everyone still alive who ever crossed paths with Wolf (which makes reading about his early years especially intriguing), and they let their interviewees discourse at length, resulting in such colorful commentary as Ronnie Hawkins’ descriptions of both Wolf’s voice (“Stronger than forty acres of crushed garlic, man!”) and temper (“He hit them fuckers and like to broke their necks”) with the same sense of admiration. More importantly, they painstakingly cover each recording session and major musical event in Wolf’s life, tying together myriad loose ends.
The extensive detailing does become a bit overwhelming, making the story overly dry at times and leaning toward repetition (do we really need to be told “Pot is another name for reefer”?). There’s also a sessionography and a discography that examines available Wolf recordings on CD, with recommendations, though the authors readily admit their bias: “As fans of the Mighty Wolf, we say buy them all!”