Segrest, James 1961-
Segrest, James 1961-
PERSONAL: Born 1961. Education: Auburn University, M.A.; University of South Carolina (Ph.D.).
ADDRESSES: Home and office—5840 Alabama Highway 199, Notasulga, AL 36866. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer and music historian. Tallassee, AL, school district, substitute teacher.
(With Mark Hoffman) Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Blues Access.
Author of liner notes for album, A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf.
SIDELIGHTS: Music journalist James Segrest is a writer and historian who specializes in blues and related music. He has written liner notes for recordings such as Telarc's A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf and has given numerous public presentations on Howlin' Wolf and his music. He assisted on a documentary of blues performer Robert Lockwood, Jr., the stepson of seminal bluesman Robert Johnson.
With coauthor Mark Hoffman, Segrest wrote Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, a biography of the legendary blues performer. Based on more than 250 interviews with people who knew and performed with Wolf, the book "demonstrates just how much can be recovered by dedicated researchers working on twentieth-century subjects for which the written evidence is sparse and uneven," noted Michael Kammen in the Boston Globe. "The authors uncover a rich vein of vernacular language and intriguing colloquialisms in the vivid memories and observations of those who knew the entertainer."
Born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, Howlin' Wolf endured hardship and poverty in the harsh environment of the Mississippi Delta. Thrown out of the house as a child by a religious fundamentalist mother who condemned him for playing "Devil's music," he lived with a brutal great-uncle until he went searching for his real father at age thirteen. He found his father, Dock Burnett, and in the process met of one of his father's neighbors, Charley Patton, an accomplished blues musician and singer who offered his musical knowledge to Burnett. The young Wolf readily learned all the tunes, tricks, and techniques Patton possessed. He soon discovered that one night of playing could earn him as much as a week in the fields, and Wolf honed his style while playing to packed clubs throughout the delta.
In 1951, Wolf made some recordings for record producer Sam Phillips, who had first recorded Elvis Presley. Soon after, Wolf was recording for Chess Records in Chicago. His career soared; a semi-mock rivalry with Muddy Waters served to embellish his irascible image even as his heavy-handed treatment of his band resulted in constant personnel shifts. Segrest and Hoffman devote a large portion of the book to the recollections of Hubert Sumlin, Wolf's longest-lasting lead guitarist, whose "stories become crucial" to the picture of Wolf shaped by the book, commented Ben Ratliff in New York Times. "It is through what he says, and a little bit of what he [Sumlin] doesn't say, that we learn of wolf's mixture of pride and insecurity," Ratliff observed.
Howlin' Wolf was a big man, strong and physically imposing, variously described as being between six foot three and six foot four, weighing close to 300 pounds and sporting a size sixteen shoe. Wolf capitalized on his size and fearsome persona as part of his stage act. "While many bluesmen performed while seated in a laid-back manner, the stage couldn't contain Howlin' Wolf, and the authors spend many pages describing his online presence," noted Bob Ruggiero in Houston Chronicle. "With his guttural moans, bug-eyed jolts, and over-the-top showmanship on vocals, guitar, and harmonica, he was as ferocious and primeval as his lupine moniker," Ruggiero continued. "He would jump on barstools, literally crawl and writhe on all fours, his ever-present sweat rag dangling from the back of his pants not so coincidentally like a tail." His performances often had a raw sexual element, and his appeal to women was considerable.
"The authors of this engaging book are devoted to Wolf's memory and music, which they appreciate, understand, and assess almost record by record," Kammen remarked. A Bookwatch reviewer called Moanin' at Midnight "a powerful definitive biography" of Wolf, and a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the authors "do a superb job of capturing the many facets of Wolf's long career" in the blues. James E. Perone, writing in Library Journal, called the book a "readable, high-quality work" that puts Howlin' Wolf "in his rightful place alongside his more celebrated contemporaries" of blues.
Segrest told CA: "The original inspiration for Moanin' at Midnight came the first time I heard Smokestack Lightnin' pouring out of my stereo speakers. The hairs on the back of my neck literally stood up and, though I have listened to that song a thousand times since, I still react the same way each and every time. What kind of man could have a voice that powerful and awe-inspiring? I had to know and the result of trying to answer that question was Moanin' at Midnight.
"From the start, I knew that I admired Wolf as a singer and blues musician, but what was truly revelatory to me was that Wolf the man, the bandleader, the friend and the husband was just as inspiring. It was an amazing journey that led me from Wolf's humble birth and horrific childhood near West Point, Mississippi to his musical beginnings in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta, to Memphis and Sam Phillips at the birth of Rock and Roll, to Chicago with its tough West and South side clubs and legendary Chess Records.
"Through it all, Wolf's music inspired me and the reminiscences of numerous family, friends and musical associates of Wolf guided me. Without their graciousness and generosity and the talents and hard work of my coauthor Mark Hoffman, Moanin' at Midnight would not have been possible. The journey was not without its hardships and setbacks, but the smiles and laughter far outweighed the tears and I only wish that I could start all over and do it again. In the end though, the greatest reward was the first time I held the finished book in my hand and I realized that the original 'dream' book I had imagined was now real. And that both the world and I now have a fuller understanding of what made the Wolf howl."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, May-July, 2004, Clarence V. Reynolds, review of Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, p. 35.
Booklist, May 1, 2004, Mike Tribby, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. 1536.
Bookwatch, October, 2004, review of Moanin' at Midnight.
Boston Globe, May 23, 2004, Michael Kammen, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. L7.
Chicago Sun-Times, June 6, 2004, Jeff Johnson, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. 13.
Houston Chronicle, August 9, 2004, Bob Ruggiero, review of Moanin' at Midnight.
Library Journal, May 15, 2004, James E. Perone, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. 90.
New York Times, July 21, 2004, Ben Ratliff, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. E1.
Publishers Weekly, April 12, 2004, review of Moanin' at Midnight, p. 50.
Howlin' Wolf Home Page, http://www.howlinwolf.com/ (December 17, 2004).
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (December 17, 2004).