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Howlin’ Wolf Biography, Part 3

 

Wolf at Anne Arbor Blues Festival, 1972

In his later years, Wolf continued to perform with a manic intensity that would’ve exhausted a man half his age, often in small clubs that other well-known bluesmen had already abandoned. Wolf said simply, “I sing for the people.”

In 1964, Wolf also married his long-time sweetheart, Lillie Handley, whom he had met in 1957 at Silvio’s nightclub in Chicago. Wolf called Lillie “a flower from the first day I met her,” and he doted on her two daughters, Bettye Jean and Barbra. Despite his wild antics onstage, Wolf was a responsible, middle-class family man offstage—honest, hardworking, and upstanding to a fault. He hunted and fished, owned farmland in Arkansas, volunteered with the local fire department, and was a proud member of the local chapter of the Masons.

Wolf’s collaborator on many of his greatest songs was guitar wizard Hubert Sumlin, who played electric guitar with his bare fingers instead of using a pick. Hubert's eccentric, slashing style made him a favorite of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, and many other guitarists from the 1960s onward.

During the 1960s, Wolf and Hubert continued to record sizzling blues that anticipated blues-rock—classic songs such as “Commit a Crime,” “Hidden Charms,” and “Love Me, Darlin’” In 1964, he toured Europe, including the U.K. and even Eastern Europe, with the American Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the American television show “Shindig” with the Rolling Stones. In 1970 he recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in England with Eric Clapton, members of the Rolling Stones, and other British rock stars. It was his best-selling album, reaching #79 on the pop charts.

Wolf at Anne Arbor Blues Festival, 1972

 

Not bad for a 60-year-old man—a very ill one. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Wolf suffered several heart attacks, and his kidneys began to fail him. For the rest of his life, he received dialysis treatments every three days, administered by Lillie. Despite his failing health, Howlin’ Wolf stoically continued to record and perform. In 1972 he recorded a live album at a Chicago club, “Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited.” In 1973, he cut his last studio album, “Back Door Wolf” which included the incendiary “Coon on the Moon,” the autobiographical “Moving,” and “Can’t Stay Here,” which harked back to Charley Patton.

Wolf at the Chicago Amphitheater, 1975

Wolf’s last performance was in November 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheater. On a bill with B.B. King, Albert King, O. V. Wright, Luther Allison, and many other great bluesmen, Wolf gave a heroic performance, rising almost literally from his deathbed to recreate many of his old songs and performing some of his old antics such as crawling across the stage during the song “Crawling King Snake.” The crowd went wild and gave him a five-minute standing ovation. When he got offstage, a team of paramedics where called in to revive him. Two months later he died in Chicago during an operation for a brain tumor. He was buried in Hines, IL.

Click to see a larger image of Wolf's grave.

Wolf was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf. His biographers, Jim Segrest and Mark Hoffman, believe he was the most exciting singer and performer in the history of blues music. Many blues experts we’ve talked with agree with that assessment. As one blues critic put it, “If you want to know what stage presence is, just point at Howlin’ Wolf and divide by ten!”


     
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Copyright 2003 Howlin’ Wolf Productions. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/14/15