The Rolling Stones Introduce Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Greatest Cultural Moments of the 20th Century” (1965)

Howl­in’ Wolf may well have been the great­est blues singer of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Cer­tain­ly many peo­ple have said so, but there are oth­er mea­sure­ments than mere opin­ion, though it’s one I hap­pen to share. The man born Chester Arthur Bur­nett also had a pro­found his­tor­i­cal effect on pop­u­lar cul­ture, and on the way the Chica­go blues car­ried “the sound of Jim Crow,” as Eric Lott writes, into Amer­i­can cities in the north, and into Europe and the UK. Record­ing for both Chess and Sun Records in the 50s (Sam Phillips said of his voice, “It’s where the soul of man nev­er dies”), Burnett’s raw sound “was at once urgent­ly urban and coun­try plain… south­ern and rur­al in instru­men­ta­tion and howl­ing­ly elec­tric in form.”

He was also phe­nom­e­nal on stage. His hulk­ing six-foot-six frame and intense glow­er­ing stare belied some very smooth moves, but his finesse only enhanced his edgi­ness. He seemed at any moment like he might actu­al­ly turn into a wolf, let­ting the impulse give out in plain­tive, ragged howls and prowls around the stage. “I couldn’t do no yodelin’,” he said, “so I turned to howl­in’. And it’s done me just fine.” He played a very mean har­mon­i­ca and did acro­bat­ic gui­tar tricks before Hen­drix, picked up from his men­tor Char­lie Pat­ton. And he played with the best musi­cians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time. If you want­ed to play elec­tric blues, Howl­in’ Wolf was a man to watch.

This rep­u­ta­tion was Wolf’s entrée to the stage of ABC vari­ety show Shindig! in 1965, open­ing for the Rolling Stones. He had just returned from his 1964 tour of Europe and the UK with the Amer­i­can Folk Blues Fes­ti­val, play­ing to large, appre­cia­tive crossover crowds. He’d also just released “Killing Floor,” a record Ted Gioia notes “reached out to young lis­ten­ers with­out los­ing the deep blues feel­ing that stood as the cor­ner­stone of Wolf’s sound.” The fol­low­ing year, the Rolling Stones insist­ed that Shindig!’s pro­duc­ers “also fea­ture either Mud­dy Waters or Howl­in’ Wolf” before they would go on the show. Wolf won out over his rival Waters, toned down the the­atrics of his act for a more prud­ish white audi­ence, and “for the first time in his sto­ried career, the cel­e­brat­ed blues­man per­formed on a nation­al tele­vi­sion broad­cast.”

Why is this sig­nif­i­cant? Over the decades, the Stones reg­u­lar­ly per­formed with their blues heroes. But this was new media ground. Bri­an Jones’ shy, starstruck intro­duc­tion to Wolf before his per­for­mance above con­veys what he saw as the impor­tance of the moment. Jones’ biog­ra­ph­er Paul Tryn­ka may over­state the case, but in some degree at least, Wolf’s appear­ance on Shindig! “built a bridge over a cul­tur­al abyss and con­nect­ed Amer­i­ca with its own black cul­ture.” 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.” One of these teenagers described the event as “like Christ­mas morn­ing.”

Eric Lott points to the show’s for­ma­tive impor­tance to the Stones, who “sit scat­tered around the Shindig! set watch­ing Wolf in full-met­al idol­a­try” as he sings “How Many More Years,” a song Led Zep­pelin would lat­er turn into “How Many More Times.” (See the Stones do their Shindig! per­for­mance of jan­g­ly, sub­dued “The Last Time,” here.)  The per­for­mance rep­re­sents more, how­ev­er, 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 in a band not espe­cial­ly known or appre­ci­at­ed for that qual­i­ty.

“It was alto­geth­er appro­pri­ate,” says music writer Peter Gural­nick, “that they would be sit­ting at Wolf’s feet… that’s what it rep­re­sent­ed. His music was not sim­ply the foun­da­tion or the cor­ner­stone; it was the most vital thing you could ever imag­ine.” Gural­nick, notes John Bur­nett at NPR, calls it “one of the the great­est cul­tur­al moments of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” At min­i­mum, Bur­nett writes, it’s “one of the most incon­gru­ous moments in Amer­i­can pop music”—up until the mid-six­ties, at least.

Whether or not the moment could live up to its leg­end, the peo­ple involved saw it as ground­break­ing. The ven­er­a­ble Son House sat in attendance—“the man who knew Robert John­son and Charley Pat­ton,” remarked Bri­an Jones in awe. And the Rolling Stone posi­tion­ing him­self in def­er­ence to “Chica­go blues,” Tryn­ka writes, “uncom­pro­mis­ing music aimed at a black audi­ence, was a rad­i­cal, epoch-chang­ing step, both for baby boomer Amer­i­cans and the musi­cians them­selves. Four­teen and fif­teen-year-old kids… hard­ly under­stood the growth of civ­il rights; but they could under­stand the impor­tance of a hand­some Eng­lish­man who described the moun­tain­ous, grav­el-voiced blues­man as a ‘hero’ and sat smil­ing at his feet.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mud­dy Waters, Howl­in’ Wolf, Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe & Oth­er Amer­i­can Blues Leg­ends Per­form in the UK (1963–66)

Chuck Berry Takes Kei­th Richards to School, Shows Him How to Rock (1987)

The Rolling Stones Jam With Their Idol, Mud­dy Waters

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Otto Olivera says:

    I saw this Shindig show when it aired. I was a 10-yr old music fan, liv­ing in Syra­cuse, who nev­er missed an episode of Shindig, Amer­i­can Band­stand, Hul­la­baloo, Ed Sul­li­van, and oth­er music vari­ety shows of the era. I loved Motown, and saw many Motown stars on TV. This arti­cle makes it seem like kids weren’t aware of the civ­il rights strug­gles going on around us in the Six­ties, but we were very much aware. My friends and I saw the civ­il rights strug­gles on tele­vi­sion, via the news pro­grams our par­ents watched at home. The demon­stra­tions, the hoses being turned on the demon­stra­tors, and peo­ple being beat­en in the streets are vivid mem­o­ries I’ve nev­er for­got­ten. I remem­ber every­thing about the day JFK was assas­si­nat­ed, and the days that fol­lowed. I think that was when many kids in Amer­i­ca began real­iz­ing there was some seri­ous stuff hap­pen­ing that we could­n’t ignore. A cou­ple of months after this Shindig show aired, my fam­i­ly moved down to Austin. Austin was a more pro­gres­sive city than oth­ers in the South, so I was lucky to be able to keep watch­ing all my favorite musi­cians on TV. I lat­er learned there were places in the South where the TV would go dark when­ev­er any Black per­former appeared, includ­ing on The Ed Sul­li­van Show!

  • T. Watts says:

    I just heard on Tom Maz­zolin­i’s Blues Radio Show (KPFA 94.1) that Wolf played on Amer­i­can Band­stand in 1959.

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