Howlin’ Wolf’s Sunburst Gibson Firebird V
CHESTER Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, was the biggest, baddest, scariest bluesman ever to stalk a stage. OK, so that’s just what I think – but what are blogs all about if it’s not opinions?
Down the years, those of us who love the blues have seen an enormous cast of truly great blues performers come and, sadly, go – great artists with the power to move the listener, to bring joy to the heart, a tear to the eye and in some cases, send a shiver down the spine.
Wolf was most definitely in the latter category….
I was born a few years too late to have seen Wolf play in person – I even wrote a song about it called “Never Saw Chester”. I know many people, though, who did have that pleasure – and believe you me, I am DEEPLY envious of every last one of them!
Standing 6ft 7ins tall in his size 14 stockinged feet, Wolf wasn’t joking when he referred to himself as “Three-Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy”. He was a commanding, sometimes malign presence on stage, a scowling, exuberant giant, one minute exuding a real air of menace, the next cracking a wicked grin or an evil leer.
He was no means the world’s greatest musician and admitted as much in one of the few serious, full-length interviews on record.* Instead, he regarded himself “an entertainer”.
*Down Beat Magazine, December 1967 – thanks to Keith Rowley for passing the mag to me.
The Wolf was that all right. Prone to prowl the stage like an angry beast or crawl around on all fours imitating the creature for which he was named – he would sometimes tuck a towel into the back of his waistband to give himself a “tail”. I remember another of my heroes, Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux, telling me he once saw Wolf climb ten feet up a theatre’s stage curtains, then slide back down, all the time furiously blowing harp. (Romford Odeon, where Lee remembered it happening was probably never the same again.)
Wolf was an effective and distinctive harmonica player, his signature tone and style learned first-hand from one of the greats, Sonny Boy Williamson II, who was married for a while to Wolf’s sister.
And what a voice! The pioneering producer and recording engineer Sam Phillips – the man who first brought Elvis Presley into the studio – also recorded Wolf at Sun Studios in the early 50s. He described Wolf’s voice as “the sound of a man’s soul”. It was a voice unmatched in the entire pantheon of the blues for its depth, range, versatility or its sheer ability to make you feel it. Listen, for instance, to the brooding, menacing “Evil”, where Wolf manages to sound like entirely different people in the verses and the choruses – for years I thought it really was two singers! No other singer could spit an angry line with such venom, make you smile with a piece of lyrical nonsense, or stand the hair up on the back of your neck with that trademark howl (rendered all the more otherworldly by Phillips’s patented Sun Studios echo).
For all his remarkable talent, it’s fair to say Wolf was, at best, an indifferent guitar player – no match for his brilliant long-time right-hand man Hubert Sumlin. If you look at footage of Wolf’s live performances, his guitars often appear as much a prop as an instrument. Nevertheless, the thought of touching – never mind owning or playing – one of Wolf’s guitars is quite compelling, plenty enough to warrant Wolf’s Firebird’s inclusion in this “Fantasy Fretboards” list.
Wolf played a ton of guitars during his career. There were the basic acoustics on which he learned the rudiments from none other than the great Charley Patton, and the basic instrument with which he plied his trade around the Delta in the 1930s. The legendary doomed genius Robert Johnson – who was actually a year Wolf’s junior – was a sometime companion, as was the late, great Son House, famously berated for his drunkenness in one of the surviving 1960s films showing the animated Wolf. He later switched to what would have been one of the very earliest hollowbody guitars to be fitted with a pickup – he told Down Beat he played “an electric guitar” before he was conscripted into the US Army in 1940.
One of Wolf’s most recognisable guitars from his later years was the 1965 Epiphone Casino he had for Sandy Guy Schoenfeld’s famous photo session – the one in which he wore a very distinctive checked shirt. Pictures from that set found their way on to a good number of album covers down the years.
Then there’s the white 1963 Fender Stratocaster Wolf is seen playing in an electrifying series of pictures taken by celebrated blues photographer Raeburn Flerlage at one of the band’s many shows in Silvio’s nightclub in Chicago. I think these images – more than any I’ve seen – capture the energy and excitement of Wolf as a performer, bandleader and, yes, all-round entertainer…I even have a T-shirt bearing one of his images!
Unlike so many of Wolf’s guitars, the current whereabouts of this white 63 Strat is well documented. A fascinating article in a 2016 edition of Vintage Guitar magazine traced it to a guitarist and collector named Tom Guerra. He describes the Strat as he bought it in 2000 as “pretty beat up”, adding: “It reeked of tobacco and liquor – basically, it smelled like a saloon.”
Guerra was intrigued by an impression on the pickguard left by the removal of the words “Lil Bill”. He then discovered the guitar had once belonged a blues DJ and performer called Alex ‘Lil’ Bill’ Wallace, a Chicago contemporary of Wolf. Traced to a nursing home in Greenville, Mississippi, Wallace told Guerra Wolf sold the Strat to him in 1965 and it had been his regular gigging guitar until he sold it in about 1970. This was borne out by no less an authority than Hubert Sumlin, who confirmed Wolf had known Wallace well and this was, indeed, the guitar Wolf played in those Silvio’s pictures (which also show Sumlin playing in the band.)
It’s tempting to pick that Strat as my Howlin’ Wolf guitar of choice, but my ultimate choice is rather more elusive. All things considered, I’m going with the vibrola tremolo-equipped sunburst Gibson Firebird V Wolf plays in a number of clips apparently filmed at after-hours jams during the Folk Blues Festival series.
I’ve long had a real thing for Firebirds. Johnny Winter is one reason for this, but just as much is down to the outright sexiness of the classic Gibson “reverse” Firebird design, dreamed up by the man who put the tailfins on all those late 60s Cadillacs. And of course, there’s also that Folk Blues Festival footage of Wolf playing one…In that footage, the seated Wolf doesn’t so much play the Firebird as hold it while he sings and blows harp, playing the odd run behind the soloists. It’s a wonderful-looking instrument and unlike so many of Wolf’s other guitars, the man’s enormous frame doesn’t make the Firebird look like a toy. (If you’ve read the blog post about my own sunburst Firebird V, you’ll know how much bigger than your average electric guitar Firebirds really are.)
The original “reverse” Firebirds all had a through-neck (the neck and the central part of the body were made of the same length of wood) and were produced between 1963 and 1965. They came in several models, depending on the hardware, trim and the number of pickups.
The Firebird I had a single pickup, an unbound neck with dot fret markers and a simple combined bridge/tailpiece, like a Les Paul Special, while the Firebird III was similar, but with two pickups and an optional Vibrola tremolo. The Firebird V (the model Wolf played) was similar to the III, but had a bound neck with block inlays and a tune-o-matic bridge with a Maestro “Lyre” tremolo, while the top-of-the-line Firebird VII offered similar fayre, but with a third pickup and (rather gaudy, in my view) gold hardware.
I often wondered if the Firebird in those Folk Blues Festival clips might been put into Wolf’s hands for the filming by an opportunistic Gibson promo man, mindful that the cameras were rolling. I’d never seen any pictures or footage of him playing one in front of an audience, but I’m happy to say that same copy of Down Beat finally killed off that theory – there is Wolf on the cover, playing the Firebird at a gig!
I wonder what became of that fine old Gibson guitar…no amount of Google searches or asking around has so far shed any light on it for me.
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