Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf
tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?
My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back. I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say. Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald. I was playing a policeman. Most of the cast were black, but not all. We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime. Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park. Fair enough.
But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions. When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant. I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E. When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.
Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised. It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational. He inhabited that role like he does all his roles. Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot. Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago. It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.
But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!! She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased. I love Beyoncé. A lot. Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.
Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather. He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House. He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago. Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis. Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years. Smokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic. Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”. It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song. “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?” Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records. I couldn’t be more proud.
Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother. It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships. We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary. The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme. American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers. It was a great great production. Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris. We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s). We became close family and have remained so ever since. We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood. E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance. Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK. So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba. Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”) are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood. Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business. We carry on.
In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood, just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond. It was good to spend time. I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up. From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension. He deserves every cent. Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.
Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody
This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.
But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf. This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly. We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi. Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat. He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011. RIP Chester. The greatest cat.
a magnificent live version from 1964 :