|Howlin’ Wolf Story, The - The Secret History of Rock & Roll|
|Written by Jeff Fish|
|Tuesday, 04 November 2003|
“I was broke when I was born, that’s why I’m howlin” – Howlin’ Wolf. What would rock and blues be like without Howlin’ Wolf? Nonexistent is probably the right answer. Almost every rock, jazz and blues musician from the 1960s onward has been influenced by Howlin’ Wolf. Being a musician myself, I know that his writing style is something we all try to emulate at one time or another. It’s a very natural and necessary part of the American music catalogue. This would be a great DVD to get for someone who wants to find out what the blues are all about. Howlin’ Wolf comes across as a totally likeable man whose passion and dedication to his art has been evident through out his long career – the interviews contained in this documentary do nothing to change that perception.
What I like most about this DVD is the freshness that the music still has. These songs are timeless and the performances on this DVD are really worth owning. Most of the performances that are included are from a 1966 performance in which Alan Lomax filmed Howlin’ Wolf in an informal “Juke Joint” setting while on tour, but the first song that we see is Howlin’ Wolf’s only American network TV performance on Shindig. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones introduces Howlin’ Wolf then, while sitting back in the crowd, listens to Howlin‘ Wolf sing “How Many More Years?” The power and emotion that come across is really breathtaking; he owns the stage. The live performances, not just Howlin’ Wolf‘s, are the highlight of this disc for me. Son House’s rendition of “John the Revelator,” with his hands clapping as the only accompaniment, is truly mesmerizing. There is also a jam session with Bukka White and Howlin’ Wolf, with White doing his best to outplay the Wolf. Seeing these old Delta blues men do their art is something very special and if you’re a fan of American music (rock, jazz, blues and country, to name a few genres), you need to see this DVD. Other live songs presented live on this disc are “Smokestack Lightning,” “I Am the Wolf,” “At the Bottom,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Shake For Me” and “Dust My Broom.” “Smokestack Lightning” has an especially nice treatment done with a montage of old train footage mixed with ‘50s-era Chicago to create a really interesting-looking video.
This release is 30 minutes longer than the original theatrical version, packed with all sorts of rare and previously unseen photos and film footage of Wolf’s band. We also get treated to interviews with Howlin’ Wolf’s daughters, who provide insight into the man that you wouldn’t see without their unique perspective. The other interviews that I get a kick out of are all those with the legends like Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Son House. These men are legends who are almost mythlike with their intergeneration appeal, and just hearing them talk about what it was like when they were first starting off is fascinating. Two of the main interviewees in this release are Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Billy Boy Arnold, a bandleader around Chicago in the 1950s. Sumlin was like an adopted son to Wolf, while Arnold was a competitor of Wolf’s, so their viewpoints don’t always agree, but respect for Howlin’ Wolf is something that they both definitely have. Sumlin has also been cited by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as a major influence on their style of guitar playing. There are several instances in this disc where Sumlin gets to play some of his signature riffs, beautiful stuff.
This year has been dubbed “The Uear of the Blues” by the United States Congress and, while Martin Scorcese may have had the most visible documentary this year (presented on PBS), I found “The Howlin’ Wolf Story” much more interesting, in-depth and watchable. Listening to Sumlin, Arnold and Howlin’ Wolf describe their music in the context of their life and times is eye-opening and informative. Director Don McGlynn and producer Joe Lauro have found some truly amazing footage to help get across the power that was Howlin’ Wolf on stage. It is to be hoped that this disc will get its due and perhaps other documentaries of this genre will emulate some of its style and grace. Performing to almost his very last day, Howlin’ Wolf will live on as an American original, a musical visionary and a legend whose influence continues to be felt to this very day. Highly recommended.