Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

A friend posted a photo/link on Facebook today to a true bluesman, R.L. Burnside. (Tip of the hat to Warren) Never heard of him? That’s too bad — he was one of the classic Mississippi Delta bluesmen. But don’t feel too bad, because most people have never heard of him. But take the time to listen to him, thanks to the magic of the Youtubes, rip into “See My Jumper Hanging on the Line.” The footage is, apparently from 1978, about 20 years before Burnside was “noticed” by the “music industry.

I got the chance to meet Mr. Burnside in 1996, completely by accident. That summer, I was fresh out of the Marine Corps and back home in Columbus, Miss., working as a reporter for the local paper. That year was the first-ever “Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival” over in West Point, about 30 miles away. For those of you not in the know, Howlin’ Wolf was born near West Point. Being a serious fan of the blues, I jumped at the chance to cover it and my editor agreed that we should. I didn’t even know who was on the bill, but I knew that it would be good. Mississippi blues all day and on into the night. A couple of days before the event, I got word that “Miz Wolf” — the Widow Wolf, or Lillie Burnett — would be there. No way in the world I was going to miss that.

I got to the venue (and I use that term loosely, being as the place was more like a metal warehouse) fairly early in the evening. The joint, as they say, was already jumping.  Musicians, most of whom I’d never heard of, streamed in and out, hauling gear, guitars and, usually, girls. Inside, a slide guitar moaned the devil’s music and the whole evening turned blue. I was, of course, looking for Lillie (who, I was quickly informed, simply went by “Miz Wolf”). She hadn’t appeared, so I started buttonholing musicians and interviewing them. They all had a Howlin’ Wolf story, and nearly all of them ended with, “But you need to ax Miz Wolf ’bout that time she cooked Mick Jagger breakfast.” Now, I knew that the Stones were big fans of Wolf. As was Eric Clapton and the Beatles. In fact, that was the core of what I wanted to ask Miz Wolf — if her husband was actually as irritated with Clapton and Company as he sounded on the London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions. See, I had a theory. I’d listened to that record a thousand times, especially the part where “the boys,” led by Clapton, claim to not be able to play a chord like the Wolf, and they try to get him to play it for them, ostensibly so they could learn how. It sounds fishy when you hear it, especially when you hear Wolf growl back at them that he just ain’t gonna do it. Man sounded pissed.

So that’s what I intended to ask Miz Wolf, if she ever showed up and if I ever got the chance.

But while I was waiting, I continued to interview the musicians. One said he’d never played with Wolf (always wanted to, though) but I ort to chase down R.L. ’cause he played with Wolf up in Chicago. “R.L.?” I asked, about as whitely as humanly possible, I’m sure. “R.L. Burnside, boy! He’s inside. Go find him.”

So I did. Inside, some white kid was beating the hell of a Stratocaster, doing his best Stevie Ray Vaughan. I’m not saying he wasn’t doing a good job, but he was no Stevie Ray. Hell, he wasn’t even that left-handed white kid I saw play W.C. Handy’s up in Memphis once (who later ended up back in jail for possession. Or so I’m told). That kid could flat out play.

Anyway, I eventually found R.L. Burnside. I introduced myself, flashed my credentials and  asked could we talk for a few minutes. He smiled and invited me backstage. Which is to say he told me to step around the keg and set down while he and the band “warmed up.” Yes, red Solo cups were involved. And it seemed like somebody had been burning leaves back there. Or something.

Burnside was, by then, well into his fourth decade of playing. He told stories of The Chitlin’ Circuit — “’53? ’54?” (“Hell naw, R.L. that was ‘57!”) — Memphis, Texas and Chicago. Shityeah he played with Howlin’ Wolf. B.B.,too. And Muddy Waters. All up in Chicago, damnright. He recalled an evening just sitting at the Wolf residence, playing whatever came to mind. All night. I could have listened for hours but the man had a show to do, and I had more than I’d need for my story, so I thanked him, he said make sure I talk to Miz Wolf, and off he went. Up on stage for the billionth time, tearing it up for a most appreciative crowd.

I did go talk to Miz Wolf. She arrived in style — big black car, beautiful white dress, smiles for everyone. Like the Queen herself. The crowd wanted to swarm her, but her “entourage” made sure that didn’t happen.  But she was a delight. She even told the entourage, “Oh, lemme talk to this young man. He’s got a job to do just like everybody else.”

Seems that back in the ’60s, the Stones did a couple of shows in Chicago that kept them there overnight. And in the wee hours who should come calling but Mick Jagger –“just the sweetest boy.” Not the Stones — Keith was probably burning leaves backstage somewhere — just Mick. To pay his respects, you understand. And, apparently, to eat everything he could get his hands on. “Oh, that boy could eat. And all he did was tell me how much he liked my cooking — no matter what it was he was eating.” And, yes, she did cook him breakfast the next morning.  “And he said he’d be back next time to eat some more!”

And then I asked her: Was Wolf getting pissed off at Eric Clapton?

Her eyes went wide and she smiled. “You’re pretty sharp. You the only newspaper person ever asked that question — and yes, he was.” The smile got bigger, even though I didn’t think it possible. “Wolf loved playing with them boys, but they were always trying to get him to play on their records and they’d try to trick him into it. If you listen to that record real close, you can hear him getting worked up. They kept saying, ‘Ohhhh, Mr. Wolf, you so good, we can never play that good.’ And Wolf was havin’ none of it, of course. He knew what they was up to and he just wouldn’t do it.”

And then she was off, waving to the crowd and disappearing like the royalty she was. I raced back to the newsroom at something like 2 in the morning and wrote the story up right then. When I left, the party was still going, Highway 45 practically jumping in the moonlight.

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