Sunday, October 2, 2011

Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, and $$$

Not too long ago I read a book about Howlin’ Wolf called “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf” by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. Wolf is a fascinating character—first and foremost because of his voice and his music, but also because of his contradictions. He’s said once to have chopped the top of a man’s head off with a cotton hoe; on the other hand, he’s almost universally acknowledged to be a fatherly figure and gentleman. On stage he was a wild man, crawling on all fours, dragging his “tail” to erase any tracks from his creeping; off stage, he was a quiet family man, with only occasional resort to the gun or knife.

Once, while reading B. B. King’s autobiography, I wrote about similarities between King and Chuck Berry. There were a lot of them.  (Read it HERE.)

Not quite so many between Berry and Wolf—but they exist. For example, while both men are renowned entertainers, hard working and happy to mug it up on stage, both are also known to be reserved off stage.

They both were annoyed by band members drinking.

Both were professional and on time for their gigs.

Both worked continually on self improvement and continuing education. Berry used different jail terms to study business and typing and to write his book. Wolfe learned to read and write as an established star, and took mid-career classes in guitar and music theory.

Both worked at Chess Records, sharing backup musicians like Willie Dixon, Lafayette Leake, Otis Spann, and once, even Hubert Sumlin (who backed Berry on “School Day” and “Deep Feeling.”

But the most important commonality that I see has to do with money.

I’ve seen and read dozens of references about Chuck Berry and money over the years. That he insisted on cash up front. That he demanded cash. That he charged extra if a promoter provided the wrong amp. That he insisted on cash in advance during “Hail! Hail!” Some of the comments are snide—insisting that money is all he cares about.

Chuck Berry talks about money himself in “Hail! Hail” He remembers his pay at early engagements before Maybellene. He remembers how much he was paid for a paint job at The Cosmopolitan Club and then says “When the money got bigger, I put the paint brush down and picked the pick up!” He offers to sell his old Cadillacs, to YOU, for 50,000 dollars!

I remember as a young man considering with fear a statement he made in the 1960s to Ralph Gleason that he would never perform for less than $1000—and that if some “pumk promoter” offered him $950 he’d tell him “Son, you’ve just retired the great Chuck Berry.”

I had an irrational fear I would become that punk!

At least one musician in “Moanin’” said the same about Wolf. “He was mostly about money,” the musician is quoted as saying. “He conserved his money and he was always singing about money…. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him broke… He really was into that money thing and he had some money!”

But what’s important to me is that these two actually protected their own financial interests—and by extension the interests of those around them.

Wolf insisted on following the rules of the musicians’ union. Once Elmore James put his name on a poster without permission. Wolf made James pay him $25.

Wolf paid his musicians’ taxes, social security and unemployment insurance—all unheard of in the blues world of the 1950s. When he fired a musician, or there wasn’t work, that musician could still get a check. When the musician retired, he’d get a social security check.

Chuck Berry insists on getting paid up front because he knows that otherwise he might not get paid at all. He insists on union musicians. He insists on proper equipment. He shows up on time and does his job. He’s done that professionally for six decades now and as a result he is an immensely wealthy man. He owns property all over the St. Louis area.

His musicians say they are treated well—paid what they are owed, lodged at nice hotels, sometimes flown first class.

And he fought for the rights to his own songs.

In other words, Wolf and Berry, entertainers and sometimes clowns on stage, are and were serious business people, who insisted on being treated with respect, dignity and fairness in the financial rough and tumble of the music business.

It’s just another area where they deserve respect and thanks.