Back in the early 1970’s I was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. I lived just off campus in a small student cooperative with my future wife, Linda, and worked evenings as a night janitor at the cafeteria in the Maccabees Building on Woodward Avenue. This did not pay well, so Linda and I both got jobs working at the student newspaper, The South End. I had a job in the production department. We would cut strips of text written by the reporters printed on sheets of paper and paste them (using wax) onto mock-ups of the pages for the printer. We also had a strange bit of equipment that could be used to take any black-and-white photograph and make a copy any size, but converted to the dots that could be used for printing in the paper. I adopted the Cracker Jack sailor boy as my icon to use as filler for gaps in the pages. We also had a staff artist who could make line drawings on demand when needed. It was great fun working there. Linda wrote a regular column in the newspaper called Gallimaufry, which listed the coming events in the area.
Since I was very young I was very attracted to music of all kinds. I had a paper route, so I was able to buy 45 rpm records all on my own. I bought Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” back in 1961 and Bobby Picket’s “Monster Mash” single back in 1962. By the time I was in college I had acquired a fairly large collection of albums and singles. The late 1960’s included quite a bit of British rockers with deep blues roots and I began to buy blues albums by B.B. King and of course, my favorite, Howlin’ Wolf. I also played some guitar and had been in a few bands with friends and family.
So, when Linda found that Howlin’ Wolf was coming to town to perform in a small club in downtown Detroit, it caught my eye. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on going to see bands, but, as it turned out, The South End had gotten tickets to the show and none of the usual reporters were interested in going. I quickly volunteered to write a review and got the tickets to go.
Linda and I brought a small reel-to-reel tape recorder we had and we sat in the club at a table near the back. I was in heaven. I had run the tape to record a couple of the songs and I was feeling pretty good.
After the band had finished it’s first set, Howlin’ Wolf was walking past our table. I quickly remembered that I was supposed to be writing a review of the performance. I got his attention and explained I was with the local student newspaper. So there I was, sitting with Howlin’ Wolf (himself!) talking to me. I don’t remember a lot about what questions I asked him, except one. “Why aren’t you playing any guitar tonight?” He replied that he was letting the young guys play the guitar stuff. The guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, looked pretty old to me, but I was just a kid. When The Wolf finally left, I realized (too late) that I had not turned the tape recorder on. I had totally missed having a recording of our conversation.
I did write a review of the performance, which probably glowed with my bias, and they did print my review in the next issue of the paper. This was the pinnacle of my newspaper career and it is a fondly remembered highlight of my life.
Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) died in 1976, not long after my interview.