Howlin' Wolf Hits 100; Did He Ever Hit Houston?

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Like Tom Petty - heard the new album yet? - once sang, it's good to be king. While Rocks Off No. 2 is saddled with justifying his tendency to sing "Over the Rainbow" in the car when (he says) no one else is around, we've been looking into the local connections of someone else with a birthday today: Perhaps our favorite bluesman of all time, Chester Alan Burnett.

Better known as Howlin' Wolf, Burnett's sandpaper-rough vocals, swinging harp-heavy arrangements and primal hoodoo-man persona were as iconic and influential as his main Chicago rival, Muddy Waters. His style still resonates today - the Rolling Stones have always been big fans, Jack White loves to cover "Killing Floor" (see below) and have a listen to the lead track of that Petty album, "Jefferson Jericho Blues."

Wolf would have been 100 years old today. Unfortunately, during his lifetime - which ended in 1976, two months after he collapsed following a Chicago performance alongside B.B. King, Albert King and O.V. Wright, among others, and blew them all off the stage at age 65 - he doesn't seem to have made it down to Houston much.

Rocks Off asked Mark Hoffman, co-author of definitive 2004 bio Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf and administrator of howlinwolf.com, if there were any Houston-related tales of the Wolfman. Since the Mississippi native spent many of his pre-Chicago years in West Memphis, Ark., and was a pre-Elvis/Jerry Lee/Johnny Cash/Carl Perkins discovery of Sun Records overlord Sam Phillips, we figured there might be.

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Nope. "I searched my notes, but I can't find a single reference to Wolf playing in Houston," Hoffman told us via email. "He did play in New Orleans [where a nightclub now bears his name] once in a while, so it's not farfetched to think that he got over to Houston once or twice, but I can't find any references to it and I don't remember any stories of him playing there."

Hoffman referred us to longtime Houston blues historian Mack McCormick. Not only did Wolf play here, McCormick said, but he may have even recorded here. However, if he did, that information is more or less lost to the ages - after thumbing through Mike Leadbetter and Neal Slaven's Blues Records 1943-1966, which McCormick called the definitive printed discography of postwar blues, he couldn't find any evidence of Wolf recording in Houston. If he did, he said, it would have been for the RPM label, and the information in the Leadbetter/Slaven book doesn't list where the songs released on RPM were recorded.

But Wolf definitely played here a time or two, McCormick swears. "I saw him here, I'm pretty sure - it was a place on Dowling Street. I don't remember the name."

Wolf was played by Eamonn Walker (Oz) in the 2008 film Cadillac Records. Here are a few of Rocks Off's favorites:


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