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Howlin' Wolf — master of the blues — was born 113 years ago today
Howlin' Wolf with Hubert Sumlin on guitar, 1971
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives
Chester Arthur Burnett — better known as Howlin' Wolf — was born 113 years ago today.
A highly influential blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player, Wolf was born in West Point, Mississippi in an area now known as White Station. With a booming voice and looming physical presence, he is commonly ranked among the leading performers in electric blues.
“No one could match Howlin' Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits," wrote Cub Koda, a musician and critic.
A number of songs written or popularized by Wolf — such as "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Back Door Man," "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful" — have become blues and blues rock standards.
At six feet, six inches and close to 300 pounds, he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s Chicago blues singers. This rough-edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less crude but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters.
Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs and Muddy Waters are usually regarded in retrospect as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked: "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'"
Named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st U.S. president, Howlin’ Wolf was nicknamed Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow in his early years because of his massive size. He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf: "I got that from my grandfather [John Jones]."
His grandfather would often tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved, the howling wolves would "get him."
In 1930, Howlin' Wolf met Charley Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Delta at the time. Wolf would listen to Patton play nightly from outside a nearby juke joint. There he remembered Patton playing "Pony Blues," "High Water Everywhere," "A Spoonful Blues" and "Banty Rooster Blues."
The two became acquainted and soon Patton was teaching him guitar. "The first piece I ever played in my life was ... a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare." That was Patton's "Pony Blues.”
Wolf also learned about showmanship from Patton: "When he played his guitar, he would turn it over backwards and forwards, and throw it around over his shoulders, between his legs, throw it up in the sky."
Howlin' Wolf was also inspired by other popular blues performers of the time, including the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake and Tommy Johnson. Two of the earliest songs he mastered were Jefferson's “Match Box Blues” and Leroy Carr's “How Long, How Long Blues.”
Country singer Jimmie Rodgers, who was Wolf's childhood idol, was also an influence. Wolf tried to emulate Rodgers' "blue yodel," but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. "I couldn't do no yodelin'," Barry Gifford quoted him as saying in Rolling Stone, "so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine."
His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Rice Miller (also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II), who had taught him how to play when Howlin’ Wolf had moved to Parkin, Arkansas in 1933.
During the 1930s, Wolf performed in the South as a solo performer and with a number of blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Brown, Son House and Willie Johnson.
In 1948, Wolf formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction" and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, alternating between performing and working equipment on his father's farm after his family's move to this area in the same year.
Eventually, Sam Phillips discovered him and ended up signing him for Memphis Recording Service in 1951. Wolf cut several tracks at Sun Studio in Memphis. He quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at RPM Records and Leonard Chess's Chess Records.
Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and Wolf settled in Chicago in 1953. Arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year, Wolf enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago. Sumlin's terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing.
The line-up of Wolf's band would change regularly over the years, employing many different guitarists both on recordings and in live performance. They included Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, L.D. McGhee, Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers, his brother Little Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie "Abu Talib" Robinson and Buddy Guy, among others.
With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late '50s, Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Wolf's career and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin' Wolf sound.
His 1962 LP, Howlin' Wolf, which featured contributions from Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers and Sam Lay among others, is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as "The Rocking Chair album" because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues.
In 1964, he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album.
He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon, who is credited with such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful," "I Ain't Superstitious," "Little Red Rooster," "Back Door Man," "Evil" and "Wang Dang Doodle."
In May, 1970, Howlin' Wolf, his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin and the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp traveled to London along with Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
Unlike many other blues musicians, after he left his impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin' Wolf was always financially successful. Having already achieved a measure of success in Memphis, he described himself as "the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta" to Chicago, which he did, in his own car on the Blues Highway and with four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time.
In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as "loose women," to which so many of his peers succumbed.
Though functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a G.E.D. and later to study accounting and other business courses aimed to help his business career.
Wolf's health declined in the late 1960s through 1970s. He suffered several heart attacks and in 1970 his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident. He died at age 65 in 1976 from complications of kidney disease.
Here is Howlin’ Wolf performing “Smokestack Lightning,” 1964
Judy Garland was born 101 years ago today.
An actress, singer and vaudevillian, Garland was described by Fred Astaire as "the greatest entertainer who ever lived" and renowned for her contralto voice. She attained international stardom throughout a career that spanned more than 40 years as an actress in musical and dramatic roles, as a recording artist and on the concert stage.
Garland remains the youngest recipient (at 39 years of age) of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the motion picture industry. After appearing in vaudeville with her two older sisters, Garland was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a teenager. There she made more than two dozen films, including nine with Mickey Rooney and the 1939 film with which she would be most identified, The Wizard of Oz.
After 15 years, she was released from the studio, but gained renewed success through record-breaking concert appearances. This included a return to acting beginning with critically acclaimed performances.
Despite her professional triumphs, Garland struggled in her personal life, starting when she was a child. Her self-image was strongly influenced by film executives, who said she was unattractive and constantly manipulated her onscreen physical appearance. She was plagued by financial instability, often owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. She married five times, with her first four marriages ending in divorce.
Garland also had a long battle with drugs and alcohol, which ultimately led to her death at the age of 47 in 1969.
Here, Garland performs “Get Happy” from the film, Summer Stock, in 1950
The late Ronald Neame discusses directing Judy Garland on her last picture, "I Could Go On Singing," in 1963.
This excerpt is from the film "Ronald Neame: On the Director" by Frank Beacham and Carol Dickman. It was released in 1985.
On this day in 1752 — 271 years ago — Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during a thunderstorm and collected a charge in a Leyden jar when the kite was struck by lightning. It enabled him to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning.
Franklin became interested in electricity in the mid-1740s, a time when much was still unknown on the topic. He spent almost a decade conducting electrical experiments.
He coined a number of terms used today — including battery, conductor and electrician. He also invented the lightning rod — used to protect buildings and ships.
Born on January 17, 1706 in Boston, Franklin was a son to a candle and soap maker named Josiah Franklin and his wife, Abiah Folger. They had 17 children. His formal education ended at age 10 and he went to work as an apprentice to his brother James, a printer.
In 1723, following a dispute with his brother, Franklin left Boston and ended up in Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer. Following a brief stint as a printer in London, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and became a successful businessman.
Franklin’s publishing ventures included the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of homespun proverbs advocating hard work and honesty in order to get ahead. The almanac, which Franklin first published in 1733 under the pen name Richard Saunders, included such wisdom as: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
Whether or not Franklin followed this advice in his own life, he came to represent the classic American overachiever. Among other things, he developed a library, insurance company, city hospital and academy in Philadelphia that would later become the University of Pennsylvania.
Most significantly, Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States and had a career as a statesman that spanned four decades. He served as a legislator in Pennsylvania as well as a diplomat in England and France.
He is the only politician to have signed all four documents fundamental to the creation of the U.S.: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris (1783) (which established peace with Great Britain) and the U.S. Constitution (1787).
Franklin died at age 84 on April 17, 1790 in Philadelphia. He remains one of the leading figures in U.S. history.
Saul Bellow in Capri, Italy, to accept the Malaparte Prize, September, 1984
Photo by Marisa Rastellini
Saul Bellow was born 108 years ago today.
A Canadian-born American writer, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times and he received the Foundation's lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age."
His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."
As Christopher Hitchens described it, Bellow's fiction and principal characters reflect his own yearning for transcendence, a battle "to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses."
Bellow's protagonists, in one shape or another, all wrestle with what Albert Corde, the dean in "The Dean's December," called "the big-scale insanities of the 20th century."
Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 89.
Ever wondered about the origins of the fortune cookie? They are almost certainly not Chinese.
The fortune cookie may trace to Japan, reported the New York Times, but they were made popular in America by Chinese or Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. Several U.S. companies claim to have made the first fortune cookies.
The largest in the world is Wonton Food, Inc., based in New York City. The factory opened in Chinatown in 1973, but has since moved to Brooklyn. They make over 4.5 million fortune cookies each day. In 1992, the company introduced fortune cookies to China.
Until World War II, fortune cookies were known as "fortune tea cakes" — likely reflecting their origins in Japanese tea cakes.
Fortune cookies moved from being a confection dominated by Japanese-Americans to one dominated by Chinese-Americans sometime around World War II. One theory for why this occurred is because of the Japanese American internment during World War II, which forcibly put over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps, including those who had produced fortune cookies. This gave an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers.
Fortune cookies before the early 20th century, however, were all made by hand. The fortune cookie industry changed dramatically after the fortune cookie machine was invented by Shuck Yee from Oakland, California.
The machine allowed for mass production of fortune cookies which subsequently allowed the cookies to drop in price to become the novelty and courtesy dessert many Americans are familiar with after their meals at most Chinese restaurants today
Hattie McDaniel with Vivien Leigh in 1939’s Gone With the Wind
Hattie McDaniel was born 128 years ago today.
An actress, McDaniel is best known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She became the first African American to win the award.
In addition to acting in many films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer and television star. She was the first black woman to sing on the radio in the United States.
During her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 80 or so.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and one at 1719 Vine Street for acting in motion pictures.
In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a U.S. postage stamp
Though the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that the U.S. Congress "shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech," free speech is widely understood to have its limits.
It is considered dangerous and potentially criminal, for example, to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But what about yelling "$&%#@!!" in a crowded nightclub?
Lenny Bruce and other comedians tested the limits of that practice in the 1960s, but it was not until the late 1980s that the issue of obscenity came front and center in the world of popular music. The group that brought it there was 2LiveCrew, a hip-hop group led by Luther "Luke Skyywalker" Campbell.
On June 10, 1990 — 33 years ago — just days after a controversial ruling by a Florida federal judge, Campbell and two other members of 2LiveCrew were arrested on charges of public obscenity after performing material from their album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, in a Hollywood, Florida nightclub.
U. S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez had set events in motion three days earlier in a 62-page written opinion that began, "This is a case between two ancient enemies: Anything Goes and Enough Already." At issue in the case before Judge Gonzalez was whether the songs on 2LiveCrew's album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, were obscene and therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
Applying a standard established by the Supreme Court in its landmark Miller v. State of California case, Gonzalez ruled that As Nasty As They Wanna Be violated local "community standards" of decency without possessing any mitigating artistic merit.
Two days later, a Fort Lauderdale record-store owner was arrested for selling copies of the 2LiveCrew album. The day after that, Campbell and his cohorts were arrested.
Civil libertarians and prominent academics rose immediately to the defense of Campbell et al., making legal arguments in support of their right to perform and sell songs like "Me So Horny" and "Throw The ****." Ultimately, those arguments prevailed, as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Gonzalez's order and the United States Supreme Court declined to reconsider that ruling.
Predictably, the biggest winners in the case was 2LiveCrew. The publicity surrounding their legal battle helped make a multiplatinum smash hit out of As Nasty As They Wanna Be, despite a near-total lack of radio play.
As for Luther Campbell and his bandmates, all charges against them were dropped.
The orchestra pit at the San Francisco Opera House sometime between 1940 and 1960
Photo by Fred Lyon