Transcript (this picks up directly where Part 1 left off)

In 1950, Aristocrat Records—which you’ll remember had been started only three years earlier by Evelyn and Charles Aron—was bought out by the Chess brothers and its name was changed to Chess Records. From here on out it would become one of the biggest and most important labels within blues music and function as a sort of incubator for proto-rock music.

Likewise in 1950, Muddy came out with another hit called “Rollin’ Stone,” which did well on Rhythm & Blues charts. This song is another fantastic example of how Muddy was just a master of creating dialogue between his vocals and his guitar. You can hear it even more in this one because it’s just him and his guitar. [play clip]

As I mentioned earlier that this song did well on rhythm & blues charts, this would be a good time to remind everyone of those three main types of charts that we’ve talked about: mainstream pop, country & western, and rhythm & blues. You might remember that prior to the 1940s, the country & western records were called “hillbilly records.” The 1940s would likewise see a label change for music by or associated with African Americans. Before that decade—as I mentioned in Episode 2—this music was called “race music,” and the records on which it appeared were called “race records.” Jerry Wexler—a music journalist who wrote for Billboard magazine for many years—is usually credited with coining the term “rhythm and blues,” but it’s probably more accurate to say that he popularized it since you can find instances of the term as far back as 1943.

But this term-change reflects something interesting about the black identity within the United States at that time. You see, the term “race music” actually originated from the black community. On the surface, it looks like yet another term foisted onto blacks by white America, but it wasn’t—at least, not at first. This term was a way for them to distinguish music that was created by and for black people. It was a way of staking a claim to a shared culture and identity. But in the postwar world, it began to be seen as offensive.

There was a certain optimism among postwar African Americans that, perhaps, hadn’t been there before. Part of this, I believe, was due to the empowerment gained from the Great Migration. If you think about it, the ability to pick up and move to a new location in order to pursue greater opportunity is very empowering. There are few feelings more depressing than feeling like you’re stuck.

And this optimism was beginning to be seen in the music as well. As blues musician and songwriter Willie Dixon described those early days of Muddy’s rise: “There was quite a few people around singing the blues but most of them was singing all sad blues. Muddy was giving his blues a little pep.”

And speaking of Willie Dixon, he serves as a great segue to this next phase in Muddy’s career. In 1953, a couple of important things happened. One of them was the beginning of this collaboration with Willie Dixon, who is the credited songwriter for many of Muddy’s biggest hits, not the least of which is “Hoochie Coochie Man” [play clip].

This song would influence countless artists down the road and serve as root material for electric blues and blues-based rock. Something to notice in this song that you didn’t hear in those others is the presence of a harmonica. You see, up until this point, Muddy had been recording with session musicians that were essentially imposed on him by the Chess brothers. Those session musicians weren’t bad musicians, of course, but Muddy had long been badgering Leonard and Phil to let him record with his own house band with whom he was more accustomed to working. And that’s the other important thing that happened in 1953. Muddy was finally recording with his band from the nightclubs. This band marked a sort of “dream team” within blues music that would impact the configuration of the first generation of rock bands that would follow it [Chess Records clip]. On piano you had Otis Spann, Elga Edmonds on drums, Jimmy Rogers on guitar—and no, this is not to be confused with the Jimmie Rodgers we discussed in Episode 3 on the history of country music—and finally, you had “Little” Walter Jacobs on harmonica.

Little Walter is to harmonica what Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix is to guitar. He was a virtuoso and is, to this day, the only person inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame simply for harmonica playing.

He was also a pretty wild dude and his story is interesting enough I want to spend just a moment on it. He was a great friend to those he considered his friends, but he was also basically this scrappy little volcano that could erupt at any moment. He was known for constantly getting into fights and, in fact, he died in 1968 in his sleep due to internal injuries gained from a fist fight in which he’d engaged only earlier that night. He’d actually split from Muddy Waters back in 1952 to pursue his own music career, though he would continue to collaborate with Muddy—as evidenced by his presence on “Hoochie Coochie Man,” for example—and the launch of his solo career is perhaps best known for a song called “Juke” which had originally been sort of some filler music the Muddy Waters band would play at the end of set when they’re about to take a break or whatever, but then he eventually developed it into a legit song, recorded it, and it became what is still seen today as a seminal song within blues history. In particular, his use of electronic amplification with the harmonica would expand its role and timbral options as an instrument. I’ll play a bit of “Juke” to give you an idea of what I’m talking about—especially since future harmonica players within rock music would likewise emulate his style. [play clip]

Another song Little Walter is known for, however, is the notorious “Boom, Boom, Out Goes the Light,” which hints at a more troubling subject matter within blues music. [play clip] Basically, he’s singing about how he’s looking around for his girl, who’s apparently been fooling around with another man, and once he finds her… “boom, boom, out goes the light.”

But let’s get back to our timeline. Muddy’s singles would dominate the R&B charts for a few years, with their decline beginning in the mid-1950s. However, in 1954, Muddy met for the first time another electric blues musician a few years older than him but whose career was just hitting its stride. This is the artist who, with Muddy Waters, would create one of the most famous musical rivalries within the blues. This artist’s name? Howlin’ Wolf.

Chester Arthur Burnett was born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910 (three years before Muddy Waters and seven years before Leonard Chess) to Leon “Dock” Burnett—a sharecropper—and Gertrude Jones—who had Chocktaw ancestry on her father’s side. According to the book “Moanin’ at Midnight: the Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” he was named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. If that’s true, I’m honestly not sure why his parents chose to name him after one of the most obscure presidents in U.S. history. I mean, the only thing I could tell you about Chester A. Arthur without googling more information is that he had huge sideburns and, I could have sworn I’d remembered from my time living in Hawai’i that there was an elementary school named after him in Honolulu, but when I tried looking it up to be sure I was remembering correctly, I realized that the school I was actually thinking of was the school from “Die Hard 3: Die Hard With a Vengeance”—which demonstrates a frightful blurring between reality and fiction within my head that probably says a lot about how my brain works.

Nevertheless! Whatever the motivations for his birthname, his nickname of “Howlin’ Wolf,” is no less confusing because there are at least three different origin stories for it. One of them is that he was once scared as a kid and went running up the stairs howling like a wolf, leading his family to call him “Howlin’ Wolf.” Another legend says that the nickname actually came from issues related to Chester’s size. You see, by the time he’d hit his late teens he was six-foot and 300 pounds. He was a big dude. And apparently his grandfather would scold him for being too rough with his grandmother’s baby chicks—almost like Lenny from “Grapes of Wrath” where he just didn’t know his own strength and would love those poor little things to death—literally, in a few cases. In fact, there’s a great interview with Marshall Chess who, you might remember, is Leonard Chess’s son, in which he recalled his time as a child interacting with Howlin’ Wolf, and he described Wolf’s hands as just these giant sort of baseball mitts that would just engulf his little hands whenever they shook hands. Anyway, his grandfather would bust his chops for being too rough with the baby chicks by telling him stories of the wolves in the area and that they would come and eat young Chester if he didn’t behave. Somehow, from that, the family started calling him “the Wolf,” which, if true, it’s kind of messed up to give someone a nickname related to something they’re apparently afraid of. It’s like nicknaming a kid with arachnophobia “the spider,” or a kid with claustrophobia “locked in a dark closet.” Anyway, there is at least one instance in which Wolf told a blues historian that he’d gotten his nickname of Howlin’ Wolf from his childhood idol, Jimmie Rodgers—and yes, this is the same Jimmie Rodgers we talked about in Episode 3. So, who knows how his nickname really came about.

Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf never forgot the day he bought his first guitar. It was 1928 and he was 17 years old. And while it’s a day he never forgot, it’s also a day for which his mother never forgave him. Decades later, after his successes, he would eventually return to his hometown to visit his aging mother and try to set her up with everything she needed. However, she refused any money he offered because, as she put it, he’d made that money by playing the “devil’s music.” Wolf’s story will play out in the stories of later artists we’ll look at—particularly Little Richard’s—in which similar paradigms of a cosmic duality between godly music and “the devil’s music” would cause more than one crisis of conscience for these artists, and in many cases—like with Howlin’ Wolf—a schism between them and their loved ones.

In 1930 Wolf had the privilege of meeting Charley Patton. If you don’t recall Charley Patton, from Episode 2, he’s known as the “father of the Delta Blues.” Remember I said he was “proto-Hendrix”? Howlin’ Wolf would attribute his own showmanship to watching Patton perform. As he put it: “When [Charley Patton] 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.” Although you’ll notice he said nothing about Patton licking his guitar, which is something Howlin’ Wolf would do in his shows as a way to play up the “wolf” part of his brand.

During those early years of his career, he began playing as a solo artist, but also had the opportunity to perform with some of the biggest names in blues in that region at that time. He played with Robert Johnson, Son House, Floyd Jones, to name a few. However, it was also around that time that he got into some legal trouble in Hughes, Arkansas. And when you’re a black man in the 1930s, you don’t want to even hear the words “legal trouble” and “Arkansas” in the same sentence, let alone be living it.

The short version of the story is, he was basically protecting a female acquaintance from an angry boyfriend, and the two of them fought with the other man ending up dead. You see, somewhere in the middle of the scuffle, Howlin’ Wolf had gotten a hold of a field hoe and used it as a weapon, which, in a legal sense, really ups the ante in that situation from it being a brawl-gone-badly to full-on manslaughter.

It's unclear what exactly happened after that since some stories say that he split town and others say that he served some jail time.

Whatever the real story, he entered military service in 1941 and eventually found himself stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia, which is where a young James Brown—who visited the base every day to make money shining shoes—first heard Howlin’ Wolf play.

And you might think to yourself, “Wow, that’s great, Howlin’ Wolf was able to get past that incident in Arkansas, spend some time in the military, and even still do some performing within his regiment.” But his time in the military would see him facing some of the greatest trials of his life.

First of all, he apparently hadn’t enlisted voluntarily. According to some sources, he’d been tracked down by military authorities and forced to enlist. The details get a little hazy in this part of the story, with some accounts blaming the whole thing on either plantation owners or plantation workers who were upset with him for not working in the fields—but another possibility is that a sort of “plea deal” could’ve been involved to get him out of facing harsher legal consequences for the Arkansas incident. The legal system coercing black men to enlist in the army during those decades was not unheard of, as we’ll see in the story of Jimi Hendrix twenty years later who had a stint in the army in 1961. I don’t want to spoil too much now with Hendrix’s story, but as a teen he was arrested for joyriding in stolen cars—even though his confession at the police station only admits to stealing a few shirts out of a closed clothing shop with a broken window. The judge gave him a choice: two years in juvenile detention or join the army. Hendrix chose the army.

Another similarity is that both Wolf and Hendrix would be honorably discharged from the army on medical grounds that saw them no longer fit for duty. We’ll tackle what that looked like for Hendrix when we get to his story, but for Howlin’ Wolf it has a pretty brutal back story.

You see, something you should know about Howlin’ Wolf is that he was illiterate until he was in his forties. This of course was an impediment to his military service and he was transferred to a tutoring camp in Washington, which, on the surface, sounds kind of nice, actually. He was receiving a free education, right? But it gets real dark real fast when you learn that “a sadistic drill instructor repeatedly beat the illiterate man for spelling and reading errors. The endless physical punishment only increased Burnett’s stubbornness—but eventually he collapsed. Soon he began having uncontrollable shaking fits, fainting and dizzy spells, and mental confusion. In 1943 Burnett was evaluated at an Army mental hospital. The notes reflect the racism in the medical community of the time. One doctor was impressed by Burnett’s enormous size 16 feet. Without evidence, another physician felt that Burnett suffered from schizophrenia caused by syphilis. A note indicated Burnett was an ‘hysteric,’ a cover-all Freudian term reserved for women, but applied to blacks by Army doctors who saw them as mentally incompetent and unable to accommodate Army life. Another medical note described Burnett as a ‘mental defective.’”

He was discharged from military service in 1943. Years later, he would say of this time in his life: “The Army ain’t no place for a black man. Jus’ couldn’t take all that bossin’ around, I guess. The Wolf’s his own boss.”

He moved back to live with his family and began performing again, eventually forming his own band in 1948. It would have a similar instrumental lineup to Muddy’s, with two guitarists—Willie Johnson and Matt “Guitar” Murphy (which is about the most “on-the-nose” nickname I’ve ever seen); a drummer—Willie Steele; a pianist—remembered only as “Destruction” (I wish I had that story); and on harmonica, the legendary Junior Parker (and no, I don’t know why famous harmonica players always have diminutive monikers like “Little” and “Junior,” but it does mark another interesting—albeit strange—similarity between the parallel careers of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf).

And this is where Wolf would really see a resurgence in his career. In 1951, he was heard by a talent scout while performing in West Memphis. This talent scout was Ike Turner.

Now, I’m not going to dive too deep into Ike’s story here because he will come up again when we talk about Jackie Brenston and the song “Rocket ’88” (which is seen by most as the first, definitive rock ‘n’ roll song). But for now, if you don’t know who Ike Turner was, watch the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to do With It.” Ike was the husband of pop diva and icon Tina Turner, who is played by Angela Bassett in that aforementioned movie. And if you don’t know who Angel Bassett is, she’s the mother of the Black Panther. And if you don’t know who Tina Turner is, here are a couple hits for which she is best known:

[clip of “What’s Love Got to Do With It”] and also [“The Best”]; you might recognize that last song as having been coopted by Pepsi as their theme song, which is ironic because, let’s face it, Pepsi is “simply the [worst].”

However, as a kid who loved the 1985 movie, “Madmax: Beyond Thunderdome,” there was always a very different version of Tina Turner in my mind growing up. And that is, of course, when she played the part of “Auntie Entity,” the post-apocalyptic leader of Bartertown who knows that the best way to tell your origin story is with a blind saxophonist serenading in the background [Aunty Entity backstory clip]

Sad saxophone can make any backstory sound tragic. Just listen to what it does when I play you this clip from Episode 0 of this podcast: [Doug backstory clip from Ep. 0 w/ saxophone]

Anyway, that was a massive tangent that technically has nothing to do with Ike Turner. For now, just know that he would provide Wolf with his first big break in the recording industry by hooking him up with getting recorded by not only the Bihari Brothers at Modern Records, but also Sam Phillips—yes, that Sam Phillips: the guy who first recorded and launched the career of Elvis Presley, not to mention other artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. And something I love about Sam Phillips is that he was a man who never felt anything halfway, and he was a true champion of every artist he recorded—which is a unique thing in an industry where artists are usually seen as little more than “cash cows.” But I bring this up because some of my favorite quotes by him are ones in which he talks about those very artists he recorded. Sam was known as a straight-shooter and his language is somehow both raw and articulate at the same time, like a sailor paraphrasing Shakespeare. Here’s a quote of him talking about Howlin’ Wolf: “God, what it would be worth on film to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up, you'd see the veins come out on his neck and, buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.”

Now, at this time, the record company that Sam Phillips is known for—Sun Records—hadn’t officially come together yet. At this time, Sam’s outfit was still called the Memphis Recording Service, which we’ll talk more about in another episode, but basically, it was simply a recording studio, without the infrastructure to market any of those recordings. So he licensed his recordings of Howlin’ Wolf out to Chess Records.

And this is where Howlin’ Wolf first came into contact with Leonard and Phillip. The singles that came out of this arrangement with Chess were “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years.” I’ll play a clip of both. Here’s “Moanin’ at Midnight”… [play clip]

And here’s “How Many More Years” [play clip].

There’s just something so magical about blues recordings from this time period. They’re so visceral. They’re so raw. They’re so… you know what, they don’t need me editorializing. They speak for themselves. It’s just great music. I like how one YouTube comment for “How Many More Years” put it: “Great tune. The atmosphere might be helped by the fact that it sounds like it was recorded on a single microphone, covered in fried chicken grease and then wrapped in tin foil.”

Anyway, that, combined with a few other singles he released on RPM records, helped to propel his career forward and by the end of 1951, Leonard Chess had been able to secure a contract with Howlin’ Wolf, and in 1952, convince him to move to Chicago.

Howlin’ Wolf very quickly rose through the ranks of blues acts in Chicago. He was able to work with some of the best musicians in town. This was due in large part to a policy he had that was unusual at the time: he would pay his musicians well and on time. I know. Crazy, right? Pay your people what they’re worth and be punctual about it. But you’d be surprised how rare that is, even to this day within music. But there’s more to it than that. Howlin’ Wolf also paid out unemployment insurance and Social Security contributions for his musicians. He wasn’t just some guy on stage who could sing and play a couple instruments—he was also a businessman. And he made sure that his people were taken care of.

Now, of course, once Howlin’ Wolf had arrived in Chicago and was starting to make a name for himself and had signed with Chess Records, he and Muddy Waters were now crossing paths.

Like Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf had a series of hit songs written by Willie Dixon who, you might remember, had been hired by the Chess brothers back in 1950 as a songwriter. Once Willie was writing songs for both Muddy and Howlin’, the competition would get stiffer than ever between these two greats. There’s this funny story from Willie Dixon in which he said, “Every once in a while Wolf would mention the fact that, ‘Hey man, you wrote that song for Muddy. How come you won’t write me one like that?’ But when you’d write for him, he wouldn’t like it.” So what Willie Dixon started to do was, whenever he wrote a song for Wolf, he would bring it to Wolf and he would tell him, “Hey, you know, I actually wrote this for Muddy, but if you really want to use it…,” which would of course convince Wolf to use the song.

I should go ahead and point out here that I’ve sort of been leading you all on in this episode. I know I set up this this rivalry between Muddy and Wolf as some sort of epic struggle, but the truth of the matter is, it was more or less a friendly one. Nevertheless, it is usually played up quite a bit in literature and film—as evidenced even by the fact that I borrowed the Mad Max line “Two men enter, one man leaves” as the title for this episode. But the truth is, the use of competition—friendly or not—had a very practical purpose, and a lot of those blues artists would compete with one another as a way to keep each other sharp and on their toes. However, as American Blues Scene put it, “Waters is recognized for having the all-around better band, while Wolf is known for his powerful stage presence as well as his business savvy.”

And that stage presence that Wolf had certainly was a harbinger of what would essentially become “performance practice” for rock artists. If you watch Howlin’ Wolf perform, you can totally see hints of what will be Elvis and Mick Jagger and even Robert Plant in those moves.

I want to end by listening to a couple more Howlin’ Wolf clips. The first is from “How Many More Years”: [clip]

And now here’s a little bit of “Who Will Be Next”: [clip]

Both songs are certainly quintessential blues, from their harmonies down to their lilting compound meter, but I want to point out a couple things. First, what you’ll notice with the piano are those repeated chords [clip] that will become almost a stock sound for early rock artists like Fats Domino [clip]. And side note: people often refer these repeated-chord riffs in early rock as “triplets,” but when the music is in compound meter, it’s not a triplet. It’s just eighth notes. I know 90% of my listening audience has no idea what I’m talking about right now but I just had to get that out there.

Also, the other thing I wanted to point out in these songs is the drum part: we haven’t quite reached the “backbeat” that will be associated with rock music, but with how the beat is emphasized, we’re certainly almost there.

And that “backbeat” is something we will definitely be talking more about very soon. But for now, I need to put this episode to bed. I know last episode I had said we would also be covering Elmore James and Bo Diddley in this one, but I also warned you that I would do some major geeking out on these artists and as you can see, I came up with almost an hour of material just on Muddy, Wolf, and Chess Records. And believe it or not, there’s a lot of stuff I can to cut out.

But that’s okay! I want this podcast to be a slow burn. I want to savor rock’s story. I want this show to very much be about the journey and not the destination. So, we will get to rock’s birth very soon, but we still need to finish looking at the proto-rock artists who would bridge the gap between rhythm & blues and full-on rock ‘n’ roll. So, next episode will be dedicated to Elmore James and Bo Diddley, plus we’ll spend a little time looking at Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and maybe even look at some early Chuck Berry. We’ll see. I make plans and then in the midst of implementing them, my inner fan boy comes out and takes over.

Anyway, until next time…keep it deep.

Show Notes

  • Crash Course video on the Great Migration.
  • Great Migration documentary by the Daily Dose (includes story of NAACP protesting "Birth of a Nation")
  • National Archives has a lot of great material on U.S. history; I used it for finding information on the Great Migration and other Black American history for this episode.
  • Library of Congress images of Alan Lomax's notes from his first recording session with Muddy Waters.
  • If you want to access the original, un-remastered recordings of Muddy Waters by Alan Lomax, not all of them are accessible on the Library of Congress website, but they can be found here in the Document Records Store.
  • The Lomax Digital Archive is a great place to find more resources and information on both Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
  • has a great article on the history of Chess Records.
  • The grotesquely racist trope of "the brute" is something that not only informed how black men were portrayed in "Birth of a Nation," but was likewise pervasive in a lot of popular media throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  "The brute" trope is the characterization of black men as wanting nothing more than to "deflower" white women.  This was based in large part on fears of miscegenation (so-called "race mixing") that was--and still is--a core fear of white supremacist movements.  An interesting article on this trope can be found in this digital exhibit of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University.  If you're curious as how this trope played out in "Birth of a Nation," you can watch from around the 2:15:12 mark to about 2:20:30, in which a white man in blackface portrays a freedman attempting to force a white woman to be his wife.  It's super cringey...  
  • Here is the New Yorker article I referenced in Part 1 about "Birth of a Nation."
  • This article on Medium talks more about the struggle of the NAACP against the premier of "Birth of a Nation."