Howlin Wolf & His Wolf Gang

Howlin Wolf & His Wolf Gang

FEAT. Howlin Wolf ,Eddie Shaw, Detroit Jr. and Hubert Sumlin

New Album Coming Soon (Click Here To Pre-Order)

Memories of hearing Howlin Wolf at the New 1815 Club are so strong that no one could
ever forget what a privilege it was to be able hear such an iconic bluesman up close in a
West Side club setting every weekend. But few may remember how few weekends he actually played there. Living Blues magazine reported on Wolf’s appearance at the club’s grand
opening, June 6–8, 1975. Wolf’s bandleader, saxophonist Eddie Shaw, had leased the club
and was presenting Wolf on weekends and Jimmy Dawkins, Casey Jones and Wolf imitator
James “Tail Dragger” Jones on weeknights.
The big club at 1815 West Roosevelt Road was, for a while, a mainstay of the 1970s Chicago blues scene. Usually just called the 1815, it became the New 1815, also known as Eddie’s
Place or Eddie Shaw’s Place. It carried a West Side blues legacy as the Club Alex (or Alex
Club) before that, when it moved from a location four blocks east where a blues fan once
made tapes Magic Sam that ended up on a Delmark album. I was told that the long, sturdy
bar on the east wall of the club had been salvaged from another historic club where Sam
played, Mel’s Hideaway (the namesake of Freddie King’s hit single “Hideaway”). In 1963 the
1815 building served as the hall of the “Prestige Social Club of the Near West Side” and in
an earlier era that block of Roosevelt Road was a residential zone.
Wolf had been hitting the road with Shaw and the rest of the Wolf Gang in the 1970s,
in between playing Chicago clubs on the North, South and West Sides, as he traveled to
nightclubs, colleges and festivals in Canada, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans
and elsewhere and sometimes taking time off to spend in the West Point area of Mississippi
where he was born. An enthusiastic, predominantly white audience often flocked to hear
him, but he also put black venues like the Harlem Dukes Social Club in Prichard, Alabama,
on his schedule, as well as festivals promoted by disc jockey Pervis Spann that attracted a
black following.

In 1975 the New 1815 was drawing visitors from around the world who sat alongside bornand-bred Chicagoans to witness the howling of The Wolf. But Wolf felt a special connection
to one segment of his audience. As he confided in his introduction to “Big House”: “I ain’t
playin’ this music to you townspeople. I’m playin’ this music to the Mississippi people, down
through Arkansas folk, Down South people. This is what I’m playin’, down where we used to
chop cotton around.”
Wolf was still one of the big names in the blues, and here he was in a West Side neighborhood when other blues stars were out touring, raking in much better pay at big venues in
America and overseas—and even they couldn’t earn anything close to the popular rock
bands who had recorded Wolf’s songs. Wolf had his own health-related reasons for coming
off the road, but he chose to keep performing for his friends and neighbors even as he survived heart attacks and endured the rigors of regular dialysis. And in Eddie Shaw he found
another Mississippi-born man he could trust not only to run his band but also to run a club
where he felt comfortable performing. (Talk was that it was really Wolf’s club.) Ironically,
despite the energy Wolf had to expend onstage, it was also a place where he could rest. I
remember him sitting alone at that long bar, even when the club was packed. Many fans
were too shy or intimidated to approach him (needlessly so since Wolf had a kind and gentle side regardless of the ferocity of his music or the tales we heard about him). And others
recognized that he needed his moments of peace and privacy.

On the July 25–27 weekend the audience included Hannes Folterbauer and Christoph
Steffl from the Vienna Blues Fan Club. Folterbauer writes: “We had a tape recorder (Sony
TCD 5 PRO2) with cassettes, medium quality, but a good microphone. I talked to Eddie
Shaw about bringing Wolf to Europe and other things – so he let me tape the Wolf concert
for private reasons.” With the microphone placed to highlight Wolf’s vocals and harmonica, the rest of the band sounded more distant, but the recordings conveyed the sense of
purpose and pride of a blues master who still had plenty to give, and the audible audience
chatter imbued the tapes with a true West Side blues club ambiance.
The songs selected for this CD reveal that Wolf was not content with a run-through of
greatest hits. Sometimes, as on many of his records, he just seemed to sing whatever was
in his thoughts and memories, often about heartaches, breakups and mistreatment. He also
enhanced his repertoire with classics from Robert Lockwood (“Take a Walk With Me”) and
Chuck Willis (“Don’t Deceive Me”). Four of his tracks were on the LP “Live In 1975” (Wolf
120.000) and have been remixed for CD release along with the previously unissued “Don’t
Deceive Me (Pleas Don’t Go).” In the 1980s, when Hannes Folterbauer founded a record la-
bel in Austria he named his label Wolf Records and began making frequent trips to Chicago
to record blues artists. He also met with Howlin’ Wolf’s widow, Lillie Burnett, who signed an
agreement authorizing the release of Wolf’s live recordings.
Back in July of 1975, as it happened, the Rolling Stones, who idolized Wolf, had also been
in town that week playing concerts at the Chicago Stadium (July 22–24). Bob Greene of
the Chicago Sun-Times talked to Wolf and quoted him as saying he hadn’t been invited
to a Stones show and couldn’t afford a ticket—but the poverty ploy, at least, was a joke,
according to Wolf’s friends and family who knew he had money and property. Bill Wyman
of the Stones later recalled in the Express: “I gave him tickets for a Stones concert and, as
I’d heard in the media that he didn’t have any money, I arranged a limo to collect him and
his wife Lillie. He came backstage then when he went into the auditorium, they all stood
and applauded him.
“His wife said it was one of the most wonderful moments of his life and the next night he
invited the whole band to his house. Can you believe that nobody wanted to go except me?
So I ended up going along with my son Stephen, who was 13 at the time, and we had the
most wonderful night – eating soul food and talking about music.”
Several weeks later other Englishmen sought to see Wolf. A BBC-TV crew came to town
and from September 2 to 4 filmed blues artists performing in clubs, including Otis Rush,
Jimmy Dawkins and Fenton Robinson at the New 1815. But Wolf turned down their offer.
According to Eddie Shaw, Wolf claimed he was “tired of making other people millionaires.”
Shaw also said Wolf had declined an offer to record an album with the Rolling Stones. But
at that point in his life, Wolf had decided what he wanted to do: play for his people.
The Last Summer of The Wolf was a grand one, but as autumn and winter rolled around,
health issues began to keep Wolf at home or at the hospital. He summoned his incredible
strength to deliver a crowd-pleasing show at Pervis Spann’s International Blues Festival
on November 7, and made one final appearance at the New 1815 the following night. But
soon he was back in the hospital. U.S. Army veteran Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett
passed away at the Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration hospital in Hines, Illinois, 10
miles directly west of the 1815 Club, on January 10, 1976.
The New 1815 era soon came to a close, but Wolf’s bandsmen carried on, especially
Eddie Shaw, who ventured out with the Wolf Gang and probably traveled more highway
miles than any other bluesman for the next several decades. Songs about life on the road
like “Highway 61 Bound” and “I Got to Go Now” featured prominently on many albums he
recorded, as did songs by or about Howlin’ Wolf. Shaw recorded three albums for Wolf
Records over the years, and the tracks on this CD are drawn from those releases.
Hubert Sumlin, whom Wolf regarded as a son, enjoyed some celebrity status after Wolf’s
death in the company of various rock, blues and Hollywood stars. Though he basked in the
adulation of fans and musicians who had been astounded by his electric guitar wizardry on
Wolf’s classic records, Sumlin had never been a front man or featured vocalist and could
rarely summon similar musical magic when on stage or in the studio on his own. But he found
sympathetic backing on the Wolf Records CD he shared with Billy Branch, especially from
guitarist John Primer (a prolific Wolf Records artist himself). His selections with Primer in
an acoustic guitar duet setting yielded some of his most appealing results. His “No Place to
Go,” incidentally, is not the same song Howln’ Wolf recorded by that title in 1954 but he does
throw in a verse from Wolf’s “I Walked From Dallas.” His tracks are from the 1991 CD “Hubert
Sumlin & Billy Branch: Chicago Blues Session, Vol. 22.”

Detroit Junior (Emery Williams Jr.) had his own solo career apart from his few years in the
Wolf Gang, and though he never enjoyed the same acclaim as many of his fellow bluesmen, he
had a creative songwriting talent that few of them could match. He recorded a live version of
his best-known song, “Call My Job,” for the Vienna Blues Fan Club in Austria in 1978, while the
accusatory “You’ve Been Laid” and the gambler’s blues “Race Track” are from the 1994 CD
“Chicago Blues Legends (Chicago Blues Session Vol. 17).”
Even though Shaw, Sumlin and Detroit Junior have passed on, the Howlin’ Wolf legacy lives
on, not only in his records and theirs, but in the repertoires of countless bands in Chicago,
Mississippi, Arkansas, and around the world—even in Vienna.
After Howlin’ Wolf’s funeral in Chicago, Amy van Singel (then Amy O’Neal, my wife and Living
Blues magazine co-publisher) wrote an obituary describing how the preacher himself was
inspired by Wolf: “In his eulogy the young and fiery Rev. Henry Hardy passionately improvised
on Howlin’ Wolf’s evocative song titles, creating an atmosphere not of resignation and despair,
but of Wolf’s power to deal with reality and live life. Howlin’ Wolf lives on.”