By Eric Heiligenstein, MD
(AKA Too Sick Charlie and His One Man Band; https://TooSickCharlie.com)
Chester Arthur Burnett (Howling Wolf) was born on June 10, 1910, in West Point, Mississippi. He was in his early forties when he made his first records for Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips later said that Wolf was the most arresting figure he ever saw play music, and that no one could transform themselves more completely than Wolf in the span of two-and-a-half minutes.
Wolf is widely considered one the greatest blues singer of the 20th century. Phillips said of his voice, “It’s where the soul of man never dies”.
He was also phenomenal on stage. His hulking six-foot-six frame and intense glowering stare belied some silky moves. He was taught harmonica by his brother-in-law Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and guitar from his mentor Charlie Patton. And he performed with the best musicians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time.
Like many prominent blues musicians of his era, Wolf participated in the American Folk Blues Festival. He was in the 1964 tour of Europe and the UK playing to large, appreciative crossover crowds.
In segregated America though, blues performed by black musicians was rarely considered 1960’s prime time television or radio material. Teen idols, doo-wop groups, and surf music dominated the Billboard charts. Popular white bands regularly appeared on television shows such as American Band Stand, Where the Action Is, and Shindig.
Shindig was an American musical variety show that debuted in September 1964 and ran through January 1966. On May 20, 1965, a relatively new act from England was scheduled to appear. They were called the Rolling Stones. It would be the band’s first appearance on American television.
The Rolling Stones, who’d enjoyed a #1 hit in England with their cover of Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” however said they would perform only if Wolf or Muddy Waters were also booked. Wolf was available, and he made the most of it. Many consider his performance of “How Many More Years” as one of the greatest moments in television history. It was also his first performance on a national television broadcast. Click here to see the Video.
Author Peter Guralnick says “I’ve listed it as one of the Top Ten TV moments of all time, one of the most significant moments in cultural history– part of a wonderful movement that couldn’t be turned back.” Buddy Guy later commented that it “broke through a boundary line that no one thought could be crossed.”
This was clearly new ground for media. Discrimination and racism widely existed in mainstream television in the early 1960’s. Blacks mostly portrayed servant roles and performed racist caricatures. Only a handful of black actors had recurring, supporting roles in other shows.
Musicians faced the longstanding racist fears about the social mixing of white and black youth and the seduction of white women by black men. As a result, black musicians took numerous measures to appear respectable and non-threatening to whites. And yet Wolf didn’t hold back.
We are also enchanted by Brian Jones’ starstruck introduction of Wolf before his performance. Comments that convey that he saw the importance of the moment as well. Jones’ biographer Peter Trynka stated that the show constituted “a life-changing moment, both for the American teenagers clustered round the TV in their living rooms, and for a generation of blues performers who had been stuck in a cultural ghetto.”
The performance represents more than the “British Invasion embrace” of the blues. It shows Wolf’s mainstream breakout, and the Stones paying tribute to a founding father of rock and roll, an act of humility from a band not especially known or appreciated for that quality.
American teens were just starting to understood the emergence of the civil rights movement; but they could fully understand the importance of an English rock star who described the mountainous, gravel-voiced bluesman as a ‘hero’ and sat smiling at his feet.
Wolf died in 1976 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Founder in 1991