“Wolf, you done killed me!” The man named “High Pockets” Hicks stumbled along a small white picket fence, six or seven steps, desperately trying to hold his carotid artery, blood spurting out in a red stream of death. “Wolf,” he repeated, “you done killed me!” Three more steps and Hicks died of blood loss.
The tale was related by Thomas Shaw in the San Diego Reader in 1973 and has been repeated dozens of times over the years, accepted as truth. So who was the original “Howlin’ Wolf”? Did he really murder a man over a woman and a $5 debt, and did he die in prison? Where was he born? Where is he buried? Mostly, why didn’t this accomplished bluesman leave us more music?
J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith’s music was magical, mythical, his poetic lyrics among the best, if not the best, of the original blues performers. His crafted words weren’t merely call-and-answer stanza lines but were deeply thought out, with a narrative line complex in its crude way. His lyrics have a sophistication lacking in most early blues tunes.
The story of Smith’s background and life is apocryphal. In fact, little, almost nothing, is known of his actual narrative. Few pictures exist of early-day blues artists. Blind Lemon Jefferson has two proven photographs. Texas Alexander and Henry “Ragtime” Thomas both have one proven photo. And Smith, the original “Howlin’ Wolf,” has no known photograph. Pictures of him on album covers or in blues magazines are often of other performers, usually a blues artist named Black Ace (Babe Kyro Lemon Turner, a steel guitar player).
Some blues critics have noted that Smith’s playing was a style of refined country blues. Others note his guitar is often out of tune. Most blues-ologists compare his guitar playing to the picking of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
All blues singers copy lyrics or notes from others, but few copied Smith’s lyrics. His most famous song, “Howling Wolf Blues,” couldn’t be contained on one side of a recording and instead is set out in four distinct parts on two recordings — parts one and two — a mini work of detail not common to any other blues song.
This astonishing blues artist is little known these days. One reason his life is a mystery is because there are few documented histories available for scrutiny. But the primary reason Smith is forgotten? His stage name, “Howlin’ Wolf,” was usurped by a louder, more famous and well-known performer 10 years after Smith vanished from the music scene.
When you research “Howlin’ Wolf,” you find that the name references the career of Chester Burnett, once named by Rolling Stone as the 54th greatest artist in music history. That “Wolf” was born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station, Mississippi, in 1910. A large child, he grew to be an enormous man (6’3” and 300 pounds). As a child, Burnett claimed his grandfather nicknamed him “Wolf” after he was squeezing the chicks too hard and killing them. “You keep doing that,” his grandfather reportedly said, “and the wolves will smell the dead chicks and come down howling after you.” Burnett told historian Chris Strachwitz during a 1967 interview: “My grandmother named me ‘Howlin’ Wolf.’” Other times Burnett claimed he was named by country folk legend Jimmie Rodgers.
Whatever the story, Burnett was a force in the modern history of the blues — as if Thor and his hammer took the stage to create blues thunder. Sam Phillips, who signed Burnett to Sun Records, claimed he was the greatest performer he ever saw — this from a man who signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.
Burnett later claimed he’d heard of J.T. Smith, the original “Howlin’ Wolf,” but he denied taking the name of the blues performer. That said, it doesn’t take a scrupulous detective to figure out this tale doesn’t quite jive.
Burnett was the brother-in-law of Rice Miller, a harmonica player from Arkansas. In December 1947, the great mouth harp player John Lee Curtis Williamson — stage name Sonny Boy Williamson — was murdered leaving an engagement on the south side of Chicago. Right before the murder, Miller — an accomplished harmonica player in his own right — had been playing on the radio program King Biscuit Time in Helena, Arkansas, posing as Williamson, openly deceiving the public. After the death of Williamson, Miller fully confiscated the name. But when the blues revival occurred in the 1960s, it wasn’t difficult to do the math; the original Sonny Boy wouldn’t have been around to play with the Rolling Stones. Rice’s deception was discovered. To differentiate between the two artists these days, they’re referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Burnett had never been on a record label as “Howlin’ Wolf” before moving in with Miller. Miller possibly coaxed him into using the name first adopted by J.T. Smith. Burnett was a student of the blues, a huge fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and other early pioneers. He always proclaimed he was using “Howlin’ Wolf” first. Whatever occurred, the twin nicknames sabotaged the biography of J.T. Smith.
Smith was born in East Texas sometime between 1885 and 1890. His World War I service record says he was born in Marshall, Texas, on Oct. 13, 1889. His death certificate gives the date as 1896. His name was John T. Smith, an item which has continued to keep his history shrouded in mystery. (“John Smith” was for decades the most common name in America. It’s extremely difficult to find records for Black men named John T. Smith.)
Smith served during World War I (Company D, 449th Reserve Labor as a private) from Sept. 25, 1918, to Dec. 11, 1918. His address upon enlistment was given as Route 3, Box #76, Longview, Texas. He was given a 25% disability rating upon discharge. Smith located to the Deep Ellum area of Dallas in the 1920s. He was known to perform from Dallas to Oklahoma and back on a regular basis. Like Texas Alexander, Smith was an itinerant musician who played fish fries, picnics and local dances.
Smith reportedly performed at the Lincoln Theater in New York City in 1930. He often accompanied Texas Alexander as his guitarist when Alexander followed the cotton pickers, who came in seasonally in various parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Alexander would arrive in his big car at a Black shantytown, hang a banner reading “Recording Star” and, with Smith on guitar, bang out the blues. They played for pennies and nickels thrown into a hat or occasionally $5 to $10 a night at party houses.
Smith was a smooth guitarist with hints of ragtime in his playing who may have picked up his guitar style from Blind Lemon Jefferson while playing in Deep Ellum. Somewhere along the way, Smith received an offer from Vocalion Records to record his original songs. He recorded 41 sides from September 1930 to April 1935. Of these, 20 or 22 were issued during his lifetime. Smith wore a black stovepipe hat with “Funny Papa” stitched on the side. Vocalion mistakenly released his recordings with “Funny Paper” Smith on the labels. This confused people about Smith’s performing name. In parentheses under his name was “(The Howlin’ Wolf).” On certain records he made with Houston blues singer and pianist Bernice Edwards, he’s listed only as Howlin’ Smith.
Blues records were recorded during the era with two songs, one per side, on a 78-rpm shellac record. These records were heavy, easily breakable and quite easy to scratch. “Race records” were recorded and released by Black artists one record at a time. If the preceding record sold well enough, a follow-up was recorded. J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith recorded “Howling Wolf Blues” part one on Sept. 19, 1930, in Chicago. The song was perhaps the first blues recording that couldn’t be confined to one side of a record, since the next day, Sept. 20, he recorded “Howling Wolf Blues” part two. The song became a fixture for Texas blues artists and is today Smith’s trademark song. He was back in Chicago various times from November 1930 to July 10, 1931, recording more of his songs — indicating his records were selling satisfactorily for the 50 cents charged for race records. (White artists on the major label Brunswick sold their records for 75 cents.)
“Howling Wolf Blues” was later copied by Smith’s protégé, Thomas Shaw, and covered by Willie Lane in the late 1940s. The great blues/R&B star Josh White also recorded the song. It was reportedly a significant hit during its original release. The song (both parts) is in the key of A, and Smith’s phrasing is more developed than other blues singers (to keep up with his complex lyrics). “I’m that wolf that everybody’s been trying to find out where in the world I prowl,” he sings. “Nobody ever gets a chance to see me, but they all hear me when I howl.” The song then shifts into a plea for his woman to hear him, or he’ll be eternally condemned by God to be a howling and prowling wolf.
Smith’s lyrics could also turn dark, as in “Heart Bleeding Blues,” which ends with the lines, “All I have to do is kill you, and go off and hide somewhere / I know you’re going straight to hell, I hope to meet you over there.” Smith also recorded with Bernice Edwards, as well as with Magnolia Harris — reputed to be the famous queen of the blues, Victoria Spivey — and Dessa Foster. With Foster, he did a humorous two-sided recording, “Tell it to the Judge, No. 1 and No. 2.”
Smith’s lyrics go much further and are more thought out than other blues singers. He also wasn’t above being politically incorrect, even for the 1930s. In “Honey Blues,” he ends the song with “Monkey got a tail cut off on the streetcar line, honey! / Didn’t think about his tail till I started twisting mine, honey! / Run back to the track, laid his head on a rail / Lose his head [over] a little piece of tail.”
Lyric-wise, his song “Seven Sisters Blues,” recorded in Chicago in July 1931, is a splendid work. Seven Sisters is a constellation of the Pleiades, but the seven sisters Smith sings about are a group of voodoo queens who practiced in New Orleans in the 1920s and ’30s. The song, simply put, is one of the great early blues tunes, the lyrics eclipsing anything else written in the era. Smith sings of visiting the seven sisters, who all look alike and are named Sarah, Minnie, Bertha, Holly, Dolly, Betty and Jane. The women drive him mad, and he is told “to go and destroy the world.”
Teddy Doering, in the liner notes to the terrific compilation of Smith’s works on Document Records, claims the singer’s masterpiece is “Fool’s Blues.” He may be right; lyrically, it’s early blues genius — “I musta been servin’ the devil instead of Jesus Christ / ’Cause I asked him to save me and look like he trying to take my life / I got TBs, ill teeth, I got third degrees and Boll’s disease / My health is gone now, left me with the sickness blues / People, it don’t seem likely to me that God takes care of ol’ folks and fools.”
Most of Smith’s history is known only because of Thomas Shaw. Shaw was an old-time blues songster from Texas who was rediscovered in San Diego in the late 1960s by record store owner Lou Curtiss. Curtiss owned Folk Arts Rare Records, where he’d mentor the likes of Tom Waits and Jack Tempchin, who co-wrote “Take it Easy.” He was a music historian who sponsored festivals in San Diego and had worked with the Smithsonian, recording rare music.
Shaw walked into Curtiss’ store and asked to buy guitar strings. Curtiss began to visit with Shaw and discovered he’d lived in the area since 1934. Shaw ran party houses and had become a preacher with a church run out of his house that he called Noah’s Temple of the Apostolic Faith. Shaw claimed to have known Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ramblin’ Thomas, Texas Alexander and J.T. Smith. Curtiss at once set about recording Shaw and sending him on European tours.
Shaw had toured with Alexander, taking the place of J.T. Smith after Smith killed “High Pockets” Hicks. Shaw recalled the incident: “See, Texas Alexander held a ‘guitar contest’ in Frederick, Oklahoma, with Wolf betting $150 as a side bet that he’d win.” Hicks obviously played better, and Howlin’ Wolf lost the contest, which upset Wolf not only because he lost the contest, but because he’d also been spending his money on a “fast” woman who was seeing “High Pockets” on the side.
“I’d been out hunting jack rabbits for a stew,” Shaw continued, “when a boy comes to get me. ‘Mr. J.T. Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, wants you to come beat this man playing the guitar. He says he’ll give you $50!’ Now $50 back then was a lot of money, so I go to Frederick and pose as Wolf’s brother. This boy [“High Pockets”] thinks he’s smart — he plays Blind Lemon’s song ‘Matchbox Blues.’ But he doesn’t know I learned the song from Blind Lemon; he also played in the wrong key. Texas Alexander is the judge, and I beat ‘High Pockets’ Hicks and won the $150 back for Wolf and keeps $50. Now, this woman has a car and fine clothes that Howlin’ Wolf had bought her. Wolf goes to her and says, ‘You must pick — me or High Pockets.’ She says, ‘I’m sorry, I love Hicks.’ Wolf is messed up — over a woman! I couldn’t figure it out. Wolf says ‘That boy owes me $5, and I’m gonna go get it.’ Hicks tells Wolf, ‘I don’t have the money, but I’ll get it tomorrow from the plantation owner.’ The next day, I go by an empty house — it’s Sunday, and this is the house where they gamble. I see Wolf backing out the door and Hicks coming at him. Wolf is saying, ‘Don’t you come up on me!’ backing down the porch. Hicks gets close, and Wolf has this little penknife — his arm shot out like a snake, and he cuts Hicks’ neck. ‘Wolf, you done killed me!’ Hicks says before he dies.”
Shaw went on to say that Smith was sentenced to 25 years in prison, which disappointed Shaw because Smith had promised to help him get a record deal. Shaw soon left for San Diego.
If this dark tale of murder is true, it leaves many questions. Smith surfaced several more times during the 1930s, begging the question: Why didn’t he serve more time in jail? Some sources say Smith was a mean man. Census documents report he served time in the Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, Texas, for attempted arson prior to 1930. He was reportedly a tall, very dark individual who weighed about 165 pounds. Jim Willet, the former warden at Huntsville who ran the Texas Prison Museum, has been unable to locate any records of a J.T. Smith being incarcerated for murder. It’s also possible Smith served a suspended sentence. During the Jim Crow era, Black-on-Black crime was often overlooked or minimally punished. Perhaps “Howlin’ Wolf” got off for self-defense?
Another possibility is that the man claiming to be “Howlin’ Wolf” was an impersonator and not J.T. Smith, although Shaw seems to have known the man well. He claimed Smith was the overseer at the plantation where he worked. There’s no plausible reason to believe Shaw would create a story so vividly recalled. But if Smith served time, it was just a couple of years, because he was called back by Vocalion in 1935 for a mammoth recording session in Fort Worth. From April 20 to April 23, he recorded 32 sides featuring himself, Black Boy Shine and Bernice Edwards. These included “Howling Wolf Blues” parts five and six. Only three sides with Edwards were released, one of these with his name as “Howling Wolf.” The rest of these recordings are lost, considered faulty and dumped.
By 1935, records weren’t selling anyway — it was the height of the Great Depression. In 1929 records sales were at 140 million a year. That figure dropped to 6 million a year by 1934. It wasn’t until 1941 that the record industry would be revived. Poverty in America had nearly sunk the music business, and no one, it seemed, wanted to listen to the blues; the nation was living it. Blues musicians returned to busking for a living. Blues guitarist Lowell Fulson later told of meeting Texas Alexander in 1939. “I met Tex by accident in Altus, Jackson County, west Oklahoma,” Fulson recalled. “He came into one of those little house parties. When he came in, everyone just stopped what they were doing to hear him. He’d just lost his guitar player, name of ‘Howling Wolf.’ He’s not the ‘Wolf’ they got now” (referring to Chester Burnett).
Fulson, who replaced Smith as Alexander’s guitarist, was a bridge to a fresh style of cool rhythm and blues. Beginning his career with Alexander, Fulson would go on to have a band with a young Ray Charles on piano. Fulson’s song “3 O’Clock Blues” became B.B. King’s first hit, and his “Reconsider Baby” is in both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These are true masterpieces of the blues, songs that developed into R&B and rock ’n’ roll thanks to the pioneering genius of men like J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith, the original “Howlin’ Wolf.”
Smith died on June 30, 1940, and was buried in L. Butler Nelson Cemetery in Dallas. His grave is marked with a plain marble veteran’s tombstone. On June 17, 2008, the city of Dallas made the cemetery a city landmark and provided a historic preservation overlay to the area. If you contact the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, no one has any information about Smith.
So perhaps it’s not truly “Howlin’ Wolf” tucked away in Dallas. Research by the late Mack McCormick and continued by Bob Eagle and Eric S. Leblanc claim “John Smith” was an alias assumed by one Otis Cook of Bastrop, Texas, and used to avoid arrest. McCormick says Cook’s sister identified her brother’s music and voice listening to a “Howlin’ Wolf” record. Cook was born in Bastrop on April 1, 1910, and played around Texas as “Howlin’ Wolf” (but not as “Funny Papa”).
McCormick, who accidentally discovered Mance Lipscomb with historian Chris Strachwitz while seeking the whereabouts of one Lightnin’ Hopkins, was determined to discover more forgotten blues artists. He even claimed until his death to have discovered a homeless man (who spoke gibberish) who he believed was Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas. McCormick was a relentless field researcher and folklorist but a difficult man to work with and even more difficult if you tried to change his mind. He felt until he died that Otis Cook, who died in 1979, was, in fact, the original “Howlin’ Wolf.”
Most musicologists and blues historians believe “Howlin’ Wolf” is indeed John Smith, who rests in peace in Dallas. Sometimes at night, in the old neighborhood on Hatcher Street next to the cemetery, the residents hear the quiet strains of “Hungry Wolf”: “I’m that hungry wolf / In the ground is where I dug my cave / I leave prowlin’ just at dark / And get back in the mornin’ just awhile ’fore day.”