Blues singer Lee "Little Howlin' Wolf" Solomon always seemed a bit too mild for his nickname. The original Howlin' Wolf, Chester Arthur Burnett, had stood nearly six and a half feet tall and weighed almost 300 pounds--in Peter Guralnick's book Lost Highway, bluesman Johnny Shines admits that when he first met Burnett in 1932 he was afraid of him, "like you would be of some kind of beast."
But Solomon, who died of cancer on Halloween at age 75, wasn't just littler than Wolf--he was sprightly, almost impish. He usually carried his head bent slightly forward so that he always seemed to be looking up at you, even if you weren't any taller than he was. He had a warm, easy grin, but his eyes sometimes clouded up with some unnameable confusion. When I first met him, in the early 80s, he'd already been a regular for years at a long list of west-side neighborhood joints, including the 1815 Club, at one time run by Wolf's old saxist Eddie Shaw, and the Riviera, which had been one of Wolf's hangouts when it was still called Silvio's. He sang Howlin' Wolf's songs--mixed in with other postwar blues standards--in an ingratiating, grainy baritone that recalled the master's voice, but he seldom matched Wolf's menacing, bull-chested roar.
Sometimes Solomon would sing lyrics from two or three different songs to a single melody, mixing and matching with a recklessness that sounded free associative, and between verses he added his trademark non sequiturs: "I ain't kiddin' ya!" or "Where's my woman?" or "Where's my money?" (which sometimes turned into a breathless chant of "money, money, money, money-money-money-moneymoneymoneymoneymoney!").
Only occasionally--usually after last call, when the music had stopped--would he drop his mask. His jowls would sag and his whole face would take on an expression of bottomless weariness.
According to Solomon's widow, Eula, he was already imitating "old man Wolf" when she met him at a west-side blues club more than three decades ago. (She used to join him onstage under the name Brown Sugar, but she hasn't sung in years.) She says he and Burnett would sometimes even share bills, and she's got a photo of the two of them to prove it--Solomon in a bushy Afro, Burnett stolid and imposing in a striped shirt. In those days Solomon "sounded just like" Wolf, Eula insists. "If you were outside and one of 'em was on the inside, you couldn't tell them apart hardly. When they'd get up and sing they used to tease each other--[Burnett] would tease him, like he comin' behind him singing and all that stuff.
"I would always help him to get his words together," Eula continues. "I used to tell him all the time, 'Now stick with this song!' He had a problem doing that--he'd be dodge-dippin' from one song to another one."
Despite the eccentricity of his onstage persona, Little Howlin' Wolf never thought of himself as a novelty act. "He was serious about his music," says guitarist Bruce James. "Really, he's the one who started me off in blues. Mid-80s, Lake and Kedzie. He needed a guitar player. When I get there, he's a little bitty guy--I was like, 'Oh, no!' He kinda looks me up and down. . . . When he wasn't sure about something he'd grab his chin with that right hand, kinda dip his head, and he'd look up at you. So we went on in, got set up and everything, tuned up. From the first note he looked at me, then finally he says, 'Well, he's just gonna have to do.' And he turned around and went on to work. From that night on I was with him for the next seven and a half, eight years."
After James had left Solomon's band, his old mentor came to the Starlite Lounge at the corner of Fifth and Pulaski, where James was playing with Jumpin' Willie Cobbs. "I just happened to look up, and he was sitting at the edge of the bar in front of the bandstand. I hadn't seen Wolf for almost three years. When we caught the break and I come down, he looked at me. 'Bruce,' he said, 'man, you done turned into a powerful man!'"
By that time, though, Solomon's own power had begun to fade. Eula recalls that he was first treated for prostate cancer in 1995, and friends say they noticed a change in him even earlier. "The way he would walk," James says, "it's like he was in pain. He didn't seem sure of himself anymore. He always had this distant look." Finally Solomon made the decision bluesmen often claim they want to make, but usually put off till the last possible minute: he went back to church. Even before he began attending services at Harmony Community Baptist--just a few doors down South Millard from the house where he and Eula lived for decades--he'd been a "very good quoter of the Bible," Eula says, and in short order he became a deacon.
Solomon never entirely abandoned the club scene, though, and even after he'd become frighteningly gaunt he'd occasionally show up at one of his old haunts, like Bossman Blues Center on West Lake. If he felt up to it he'd let the band call him to the stage, where he'd reprise one of his old routines.
Eventually Solomon's illness got so severe that he became all but housebound, and Eula tended him until the end. "He told me, 'Eula, I'm dying. What are you trying to save? Look at me. . . . I do not want to live like this.'
"When he took his last breath I was sitting there holding his hand, talking to him. He just squeezed my hand just a little bit. That's all, didn't say anything, just put a little pressure on my hand, and once he took that long last breath, that pressure left off my hand. I knew then he was gone. He just let out one more big puff of air, and that was it."
On Saturday, November 5, Solomon's friends and family gathered at Harmony Community Baptist Church for an inspirational and sometimes even jubilant funeral service. Most remembered him as an old-fashioned Christian gentleman ("He always tipped his hat when he would talk to a lady"), impeccably dressed but humble enough despite his local celebrity to dedicate hours to chores like picking up litter around the church. The Reverend James Brooks Sr., who officiated, recalled that when he approached "Brother Solomon" about returning to the fold back in the late 90s, the bluesman replied, "You take care of in there, and I'll take care of out here." But once Solomon did join, Brooks said, "He'd just stand there and look at me, say, 'I got a new home. I got a new home.'"
Some of Solomon's old buddies have mixed feelings about his return to church, though. When I visited Bossman (he won't give his real name) at his club after the service, he flashed me a flinty glare and barked, "Wolf's friends don't wanna be in no goddamn church! They wanna hear some blues, have a drink, sit around talkin' 'bout 'Where's my woman? Where's my woman?'"
They'll have the chance to do just that at a tribute to Solomon this Friday and Saturday at Bossman Blues Center. James will be out of town, but Carl Norington, Solomon's bassist, will play in the backing band; the roster of singers includes Willie D., Bobby Too Tough, Z.Z. Hill Jr., Foxy Lady (who covers a few Wolf tunes her-self on the self-released She's Howlin), and longtime west-side Wolf imitator Tail Dragger.
Tribute to Little Howlin' Wolf
When: Fri-Sat 11/18-11/19, 8 PM
Where: Bossman Blues Center, 3500 W. Lake
Price: Donation requested
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.