A Wolf Howled in Chicago

"Get your picture with the Wolf"—Larry Birnbaum (left) and Debbie Nathan (right).

In the early 1970s, my hometown—Chicago—was a hotbed of blues. I discovered the blues in high school via the Rolling Stones, and I began to frequent the city's blues clubs as a college student, at first while still underage. From Theresa's, the South Side tavern where Junior Wells performed, I progressed to the West Side, where on weekends I would head down Madison Street to see Howlin' Wolf at Big Duke's Blue Flame Lounge.

Crudely drawn erotic silhouettes adorned the walls of the Blue Flame, providing the setting for a stage act in which Wolf waggled the microphone in front of his crotch and crawled under the front-row tables on his hands and knees, drawing gasps and screams from the women seated there. At 6' 3" and nearly 300lb, he created quite a spectacle. Between sets, clubgoers would stand in line to get his autograph, an honor shared, among Chicago bluesmen, only by his rival Muddy Waters. (The West Side locals took their bluesmen for granted, except for these two.)

Sitting in a chair, Wolf would play harmonica and slide guitar and sing in his bottomless gravel pit of a voice. I don't recall his performing any new material, just classics such as "Smokestack Lightning," "Spoonful," "The Red Rooster," "Goin' Down Slow," "I Ain't Superstitious," "Built for Comfort," "My Country Sugar Mama," and "Evil." But he didn't just reproduce his records; on "Commit a Crime," for example, instead of rushing through the line "You put poison in my coffee, instead of milk or cream," as on disc, he stressed instead of, letting the words hang in the air balefully before completing the accusation.

Once, before the first set started, I watched one of the band's guitarists—not Hubert Sumlin but another one whose name I didn't know—together with guest guitarist Johnny Littlejohn, whose own band I often went to see, sitting near the bar rehearsing "Who's Been Talking" under Wolf's vigilant eye. The two guitarists intertwined vamps in the manner of the saxophone and guitar on the original record, although it sounded better live at the bar. When they played the song during the set, Wolf added a third vamp on harmonica. It was a revelation.


Like most blues bandleaders, Wolf was particular about his sound, and he rebuked erring musicians with a venomous glare. Wolf never had any white musicians in his band, even to sit in, not when I was there. His sidemen varied, the one constant being Sumlin (above), whose already legendary guitar playing I strained to hear amid the roar of the band. The group's other guitarists—there was always at least one—seemed to take whatever solos there were. It wasn't until I watched him on YouTube, years after his death, that I realized what a good guitarist Sumlin was.

One night at Big Duke's, in the middle of a set, he unstrapped his axe, lay down on the stage, and passed out, while the band played on. Another time, as the band took a break, he began playing the vamp from Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" all by himself. "Go ahead," rasped Howlin' Wolf. "Make a damn fool of yourself."

Sumlin and Wolf had recently returned from England, where they recorded The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions for Chess Records with Eric Clapton (who insisted on Sumlin's presence over Marshall Chess's objections), Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. "I made a record with the Rollin' Stones," Wolf informed me later, ignoring the absence of Jagger and Richards. "Didn't sound like nothin' to me." Wolf had appeared once before with the Stones—at their request—on the TV show Shindig in 1965.

Prompted by an in-house photographer, my then-girlfriend Debbie Nathan and I had a Polaroid taken with the star. "Get your picture with the Wolf," the lensman urged. "He won't be around forever, you know." Debbie sat on his lap at his bidding, his left arm around her waist.

Four years after The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions was released, journalist Bob Greene wrote a column in the Chicago Sun-Times lamenting that the Rolling Stones had not invited Wolf to their show at the Chicago Stadium and that Wolf, in dire financial straits, could not afford a ticket. "I never made too much," he told Greene. "My records never done too good. I farmed when I was coming up. I made more money working on the farm than I did with my music." At the Blue Flame, Big Duke himself, a burly man, stood in front of the stage and reproached Wolf for the column, letting on that Wolf owned a sizeable parcel of land in Mississippi and other assets. According to Wolf biographers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Wolf and his wife had in fact been invited to that Rolling Stones show and did attend. She would later tell Greene that Wolf's remarks were made in jest.

By that time, Wolf's health had deteriorated: a series of heart attacks, kidney failure. He'd lost a good deal of weight and would turn down offers to buy him drinks, pointing to his chest. I recall a performance of the Elmore James classic "Dust My Broom" in late 1975. "I believe, I believe my time ain't long," he sang, and then, ad-libbing, "I believe, I know my time ain't long." I looked over at his wife, Lillie, who'd introduced herself to me as "Mrs. Wolf," although Wolf's legal name was Chester Burnett. She looked devastated, tears in her eyes. Not long afterward, at age 65, he passed away during surgery for a brain tumor. There will never be another like him.