The Story Behind the Photos
Part 1: The Avalon concert
and our first meeting
In July 1968, Howling Wolf (Chester Burnett) drove out to San Francisco, California from Chicago in a white Chevrolet station wagon pulling a small 2-wheel trailer with the band’s equipment. On the back was a sign depicting a wolf’s howling silhouetted profile and declaring “The Original Howling Wolf and His Orchestra” and booking info.
He’d HAD to drive, he told me, in order for them to keep any money from what he said were the very low-paying gigs he’d been booked to do… in this case, at the Avalon Ballroom (Family Dog Productions) and the Berkeley Blues Festival. (I’d seen Wolf one afternoon the week before playing for free at Sproul Plaza at UC, promoting the upcoming Blues Festival, and the next band to perform was Quicksilver Messenger Service. (Ah, “the Good Old Days” for sure!) However, I’d only been able to catch his show for one song and at quite a distance from the bandstand.
Accompanying Wolf on the drive to the coast were Guitarist Hubert Sumlin, drummer Cassell Burroughs, and sax player Willie Young. Once in town, they hired a 19 year old bass player out of the local musicians’ union (who it turned out was Alvin Nichols, also known later as B.B. Jones) and whose father was a local east bay blues piano player going by " Johnny B. Good."
Before going to the Avalon Ballroom that night, I’d borrowed a Nikon 35mm camera from the Bank of America’s AV department where I was working part-time while attending SF State college (at that time it was half a day on student strike picketing for social and campus change and half a day reluctantly assisting the Training & Development Dept. and B. of A. Board meetings )
I drove to the Van Ness area of San Francisco, parked, waited in line, paid for a ticket and entered. The place was pretty crowded and they kept the lights down very low. The opening act “Conqueroo” was playing by then, and The Steve Miller Band was actually the headline band at this concert – the first of three consecutive nights of this bill, July 12, 13 and 14. I wasn’t interested in the other bands, and never really even listened, though a fan of the early Steve Miller (Blues Band) I attended again the next night.
My mission was, simply, to hear - and if fortunate enough, to meet - the Wolf. Just exactly why I was so driven I only now can say cogently, but then, having heard his voice just once on a worn out 45 rpm record (after having been intrigued and amused by his stage name) when the chance came, 3 years later… I HAD to meet him. I didn’t question it.
I wasn’t normally into “meeting” performers at the time… being one myself with a strong background in formal percussion and a budding songwriter and self-teaching harp player. Soon enough, after this, however I did begin to seek out and meet a number of them… to personally connect with them and share what was happening, and to know them.
Their lives and music spoke to my deeper self, to life itself, to something timeless and true. I’d offered to play drums for them, at no charge of course (to such legends as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mance Lipscomb, etc.) And they always said I could, without even knowing if I was any good!!! (but, in all modesty, I was V ERY good having been fortunate enough to have taken drum lessons as a teenager from Joe Morello.)
I had first heard Wolf’s NAME in 1965, and at first thought it was both “really cool” and yet, probably just a gimmick, a kind of put-on… because, what kind of singer would go by that that? Well, after all… I was raised in a very square suburb, or as I prefer to say more accurately, “did hard time there.” However, in 1966, before meeting Wolf, I’d had a stint as a documentary filmmaker for The National Civil Rights Act Training Institute. So, thankfully, I’d started to become very much hipper to levels of Black culture and history. But before that, I sure wasn’t.
Then, when at least a year later, someone played me a record by Howling Wolf, that was IT! Once I’d heard Wolf sing, even on a record, there was some kind of connection that’s hard to put into words… it was just so… right! So when I’d heard he would be in town, I was truly drawn to see this VOICE, this spirit, this man, in person… and went to the Avalon Ballroom that night.
I was hoping to get a picture of him. I just realized writing this that, then, I’d NEVER taken a photo at a concert before, though I’d been to a number of them then in which there were “big names,” both blues and rock, folk-rock, blues-rock or whatever, including Muddy, Big Mama, and even guys that had let me sit in on drums with them during their shows, although I did thank God take a few good portraits of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, then in his late 60’s (and as good as ever) after accompanying him the night before. I have some of Brownie at his Easter bar-b-q in Oakland. Special memories!
So... once inside the Avalon, I was able to just walk back to the dressing room (a small narrow 15 feet or so deep room with a table and a couple bench seats, like a picnic table, up near the door and with some narrower space in the rear for equipment and clothes.
There near the entrance, I found Wolf surrounded by about seven fans, black and white, men and women, chatting and signing an autograph on one guy’s arm. Wolf was friendly and smiling. He looked amazing to me, not only big but with a presence and warmth that filled the room. And this is BEFORE I ever heard him sing live yet, much less met him. But, I felt uniquely at ease shortly after getting there, even in a room full of strangers, including musicians getting ready go out and do a show.
In all regards, from what I saw and experienced backstage, Wolf was intense, focused, happy, bigger than life and incredibly expressive. All this was dynamically natural, in no way contrived or “on.” Wolf focused on his upcoming sets, discussing fine points with his band, laughing about experiences from prior engagements, signing autographs, sharing some humor with his various band members, and whatever...
I had not yet said a word to him or met him yet, so I was a little bit anxious about if it would be ok to take his picture then, but something felt so rigth that I did take a few.
When the fans left and I didn’t, he invited me to sit down across the table from him where, as there was finally a chance amidst all the hectic stuff going on there. I rather shyly said hi and introduced myself, telling him how much I liked the blues and that especially his stuff.
But then,, he needed to first very emphatically express some instructions and a “command decision” to one of the regular band members about which key to play in and perhaps some other technical aspect of the upcoming material. I saw there had been a conflict of opinions about that matter before I’d arrived. But once Wolf made his point all were immediately in agreement .
Then, it was time for just him and me to connect. Wolf was friendly to me - - accepting, radiating respect - - and I felt like a true peer. I was not used to this kind of respect, having come from a brutally dysfunctional family in such regards. Wolf’s loving, respectful and focused centeredness came through to me immediately and in many ways. I was really surprised deep down in my soul, and also grateful and happy about all of it, and still am to this day. Something in me woke up. In fact as I have written else where and will include here, an actual beatification was occuring. And in more than one direction as I now reflect on it. There was a powerful energy in the air, everything felt great, and unfolded and developed in it’s own rhythm and progression, so easily, spontaneously, happily, yet sharply focused. I was in some kind of “I-Thou Wolf-Zone,” without a doubt!
As we talked, and as I just “hung around” backstage, I may never up until then felt so welcome and comfortable, especially somewhere new - in my entire life - as I did that night, and as I also did again when I visited him and his family in Chicago a year later, and for that matter, every time I saw him in person.
Even his letters, which I guess Lillie wrote from his dictation, were warm, respectful and expressive, "pure Wolf" as well as taking detailed care of the our collaborative partnership
He was one of the warmest and most fully-present individuals I've ever known, and he radiated a unique powerful charisma and presence, which came through in his music, too. Well, I guess I’ve made that point now.
Then Wolf - - having noticed I’d been taking some pictures of the dressing room scene - - asked me, “Hey, man, you a photographer?” I replied that I did photography and both a student and a musician and songwriter.. (by then, I’d been briefly in the band called “The San Andreas Fault Finders” as well as various others, since I was 13, in fact)
And then, just “like that”… Wolf told me that he needed a new agency publicity photo as well as business card photos, that they were already very overdue, because someone who’d been expected to do it had not gotten around to it for some reason, and Wolf asked me if I’d like to take them for him, for a fee of course, and that I should keep the rights to them!
I wasn’t expecting that and was nearly overwhelmed and certainly felt overjoyed! I’d really just started to do professional photography at that point, having gotten out of filmmaking due to the difficult politics of fundraising and the relatively high costs.
And now to have HowlingWolf ASK me to take his photo as a professional assignment… Well, I managed to say yes!!! without much difficulty or ambivalence (heheheh) and of COURSE how much I wanted to, and that I considered it an honor to do so. And so, we arranged to meet in the next few days at his motel, where we would do the photos, which he very generously again reminded me I would own the rights to and keep the negatives, from which he’d buy copies made in bulk as needed, as well of bulk sets of two new, full-photo business cards that I’d get made once he selected which photos were to be on one side of them. He gave me his old card without any photo on it, and I would later use the same text and design for the printed side. The full-photo side was his idea. He was usually a half jump ahead of all I was thinking, and often on the same thought at the same time in many ways.