“This Is Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies” Sam Phillips
Howlin’ Wolf, now there’s a handle you are always going to check out. Before I knew of the blues, I knew of Howlin’ Wolf. In the back seat, the car smelling of smoke and strong whiskey, over The Scalp, sounds of a pirate ship in the Irish Sea, a sleepy pirate whispering “Howlin’ Wolf”, man, what that voice on the radio conjured to a garsun of five or six.
Where does a man like that come from? Hard to know, but some of him was formed from Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, by way of the Mississippi Delta Blues. He was a farmer until forty, like Jesus Christ, he hung about his own sod into middle age preaching his message on the plantations and juke joints of Mississippi. He played guitar and rack harmonica like Jimmy Reed. But, the glory of the man was his voice. Oh man, that voice, only one was ever born, you know it, you may not know you know it but you know it. Thunderously ferocious with somehow a pentimento of delicacy. There is none better in describing it than Peter Guralnick, so rather than trying to paraphrase him, let him tell it,
“It combined the rough phrasing of Patton with the vocal filigree of Tommy Johnson and its familial descendant, the blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers, the white country singer whom Wolf always admired. This became Wolf’s howl.”
Wow, that’s good, no wonder Wolf liked Peter’s descriptions of him, like when Peter wrote, “three hundred pounds of heavenly joy”, Wolf repeated it , and then said “mmm hmmm, where’d you get that from, boy? You make that up from your own head?” Yes, the man weighed twenty-eight stone in our money, all hanging on a wide six foot three frame.
At nearly the age of forty, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Ike Turner spotted him and brought him to Sam Phillip’s Recording Service on Union Avenue, later Sun Studios. Or Sam Phillips heard him on KWEM and called the station. Either way it was 1951 when Wolf recorded at Sun with Willie Johnson on guitar and Willie Steele on drums. When you hear it, you’ll think there’s a fourth, but that’s Johnson playing lead and rhythm. Sam added a piano in subsequent sessions to How Many More Years. That’s Billy “Red” Love. Or is it Ike Turner? Oh, but man, Wolf’s voice, what it must have being like for Sam Phillips to hear and record that sound in that little room in Memphis. Hewn from the Delta, something inexplicable, Sam surmised it best, saying it was both the worst and most beautiful voice he had ever heard.
With Sam, they worked and re-worked two songs. How Many More Years and Baby Ride With Me, over and over. However, when it came to cutting the record, the latter was scrapped and instead preference was given to Moanin at Midnight as the B-Side with How Many More Years as the A-Side. Sam needed Wolf’s howl. If you had to safe one record from the whole Mississippi Delta Blues canon, Moanin at Midnight may very much be it. Sam thought so. Of all the artists he recorded, and man did he record some, Wolf was his favorite and Moanin’ in the Moonlight was his favorite Wolf track. Thank God, they got it down.
Think about Wolf, what it must have being like for him, it would have been the first time, after decades of performing that he got to listen back to himself. Sam provides a fantastic description of Wolf performing,
“When he opened his mouth to sing, this guy hypnotized himself along with you. To see him on a session, it was just the greatest show – the fervor in that man’s face, his eyes rolling up into his head, sweat popping out all over, setting up on front of his chair and locked into telling you individually about his trials and tribulations. He’s the only artist I ever recorded that I wish I could have had a camera on – the vitality of that man was something else.”
Imagine, what seeing him in a roadhouse in Mississippi in the 1930s would have been like after a month of back-breaking, soul-sapping work for little money with no TV, no radio, no hope. Man, it may have been the best memory you ever had. The magic of Wolf.
The record was released in August 1951 on Chess. That record and Howlin’ Wolf would become the Daddy of the Mississippi Blues influencing the New Blues of bands like The Rolling Stones.
“What was so great about seeing Wolf on Shindig was it was in a sense reality imposing itself on this totally artificial setting,” Guralnick says. “While I was a big fan of the Stones, it was altogether appropriate that they would be sitting at Wolf’s feet. And that’s what it represented. His music was not simply the foundation or the cornerstone; it was the most vital thing you could ever imagine.” Peter Guralick