Wolf Pack

Howlin' Wolf, in tribute and spirit

The last few days found me thinking a great deal about Clifford Antone, as I tend to do around the anniversary of his death last week. I try to balance the staggering sense of loss by remembering the incredible music he brought into my life for so many years, but the emptiness still echoes.

Back when Clifford opened the first Antone’s on Sixth Street in July 1975, another era was folding its cards. Luckily, many of those kings and queens were around to play Antone’s before collecting their righteous rewards, like the mighty Muddy Waters. King Willie Dixon. Shouter Esther Phillips. The sly Jimmy Reed. Harp man Junior Wells. Sunnyland Slim. Walter “Shaky” Horton. Them was the days, my friend.

One that never made it to Antone’s was Howlin’ Wolf. Clifford had already booked him – or maybe he was just working on it – when Wolf died in January 1976. Born in West Point, Mississippi on June 10, 1910, Chester Arthur Burnett developed his personal style by fusing influences from guitarist Charley Patton and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. Working first with guitarist Willie Johnson in Memphis and then Hubert Sumlin in Chicago, the massive bluesman’s blistering, dramatic performances were captured in raw power on his Chess sides.

Wolf had a particular affinity for Willie Dixon’s songs. Dixon accompanied Wolf on stand-up bass for many years and his compositions, such as “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Spoonful,” and “Back Door Man,” are inextricably entwined with Wolf’s. When the British Invasion brought a new appreciation for his music in the mid-1960s, from upstarts like the Rolling Stones, Wolf graciously accepted the attention. Ill health began to hamper his performances – heart trouble and an automobile accident didn’t help. When he entered the hospital for an operation, he didn’t survive.

His music does, though. Favored for his big, growling, tumbling blues and a heavy roll of a bass bottom, the faithful still keep Howlin’ Wolf alive. That’s the way Jesse Sublett feels, anyway, and he’ll be honoring Wolf at the Continental on Thursday, June 11 with buddies Jon Dee Graham and Kory Cook, plus Charlie Terrell & the Murdered Johns and all-star guests including Big Foot Chester, Kathy Valentine, Burnin' Mike Vernon, Derek O'Brien, Eve Monsees and Mike Buck, Izzy Cox, David Murray, Dominique Davalos, Nathan Singleton, Bevis Griffin, Brad Fordham, and probably a few more. A Wolf Howl contest at midnight tops it off.

Damn, I am sorry Howlin’ Wolf never made it to Antone’s. But thank you, Clifford, for Hubert Sumlin and everything else you brought me.

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Howlin' Wolf, Clifford Antone

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