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Kitsap author helped write the final word on blues legend Howlin' Wolf
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones called him “The Howlin’ Mark Hoffman.”
A fitting moniker, if not also flattering, for the Kitsap man half responsible for researching and writing what has become known as the definitive biography of one of the blues’ most dynamic performers and distinctive voices, Howlin’ Wolf.
Hoffman, who works in Bremerton and lives on Bainbridge Island, calls his labors as a blues biographer “basically a hobby.” But as the Wolf’s 100th birthday approaches next month, the work serves as a portrait of the man who was a towering figure, literally, of 60s folk and rock and roll, whose songs were covered by musicians and bands like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Led Zeppelin.
“I just thought it was about time that somebody do a real biography on him,” Hoffman said of the 6-foot-3-inch man born Chester Arthur Burnett June 10, 1910. “It was ridiculous you could go down to the book store and find five books about Elvis Presley and no books about Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.”
The technical and marketing writer started about 15 years ago on the biography, along with James Segrest, called “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” which in 2004 became the top-selling blues book in the world and is now considered the final published word on the life and times of the legendary bluesman.
The endeavor took him across the country to conduct the more than 250 interviews with notables such as B.B. King and the Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who gambled away $200 Hoffman loaned him.
Hoffman is about to step into the spotlight again next month, when blues fans celebrate the Wolf’s 100th birthday. Now recognized as a blues authority, he is arranging interviews with radio stations.
“This is kind of the year of Howlin’ Wolf,” he said.
Hoffman, 57, wasn’t always the blues buff he is now. The Lakewood native was a technical writer for Microsoft, a guy who played the drums in bands since high school who decided he needed a “real job” to make a living. He worked as a comedy critic on the side for Seattle Weekly and the Bellevue Journal-American, lauding then-struggling young comic Bill Nye before his “Almost Live!” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” fame.
Hoffman initially learned about the Wolf through the back door, having heard that he was the inspiration for some of his favorite artists from the British invasion of the 1960s. When he traveled through the South in 1994, he originally planned to write a biography of blues guitarist Muddy Waters, only to find he had been beaten to the story.
In the small town of Drew, Miss., he met the would-be co-author James Segrest, who had been picking away on the Howlin’ Wolf book since the 1980s. They agreed to collaborate on the book of a man whose early life was largely unknown. Since then, the two men’s lives were dedicated to the biography.
“Writing music pieces just puts me in a different time and place,” Hoffman said Tuesday in his “music room” in Bainbridge Island, filled with memorabilia, including what Hoffman says is blues demigod Robert Johnson’s death certificate and his panoply of guitars. “It puts me in a different world.”
Hoffman has stories of interviewing the legendary singer’s very first girlfriend, whom he left when he ran away from his abusive great-uncle in the 1920s. He talked to Howlin’ Wolf’s old bandmates and friends, who recounted stories of the time he got into an argument over a woman and took the top of a man’s head off with a cotton hoe. It’s uncertain whether claims are true that Howlin’ Wolf had to hide in a drainage ditch and breathe through a straw after the incident. The singer led a sometimes harrowing life, having survived near-lynchings, shootings and stabbings during his career singing in juke joints in the South before his popularity rose in the 1940s.
Howlin’ Wolf died in 1976 at the age of 65, having cultivated his image, recording with the British Invasion musicians who helped popularize his songs.
The Wolf even had ties to the Pacific Northwest, albeit unhappy ones. During a brief stint in the Army, he suffered a nervous breakdown in Camp Murray, adjacent to Fort Lewis, in 1943. Afterward, he was sent to a military hospital at Camp Adair near Corvallis, Ore.
“What really broke him was spending a winter in Tacoma,” Hoffman quipped.
Upon the book’s publication in 2004, it gained nationwide attention. It was reviewed by the New York Times multiple times, described as an exhaustive biography to a fault. Hoffman acted as the chief consultant for the documentary film, “The Howlin’ Wolf Story - the Secret History of Rock & Roll” and the biography inspired actor Eamonn Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf in the 2008 biopic “Cadillac Records.”
The most surprising thing Hoffman learned about Howlin’ Wolf?
“He was a really nice guy,” he said. “I thought I was going to be writing a book about an alcoholic nutcase.”
Though Howlin’ Wolf’s onstage presence was scary, intense and even “demonic,” off-stage he was a complete gentleman, Hoffman said. He saved his money and kept a clean house. A friend of his told Hoffman he was “just like a big pet.”
Hoffman has played music himself throughout the region for more than 35 years, first as a drummer, but now as a guitarist, having picked up the instrument when he was 40.
“I think by the time I’m 65 I’ll be really good,” he said.
These days, Hoffman mainly plays gigs and open mics in North Kitsap and Bainbridge Island, performing what he calls “acoustic roots music.” He wants to tap the Bremerton music scene this summer and play at The Manette Saloon.
“It’s kind of a nice little scene here,” Hoffman said last week at Cornerstone Coffee in Bremerton, downstairs from his Dimension 4 office, adding that Bremerton is the best place in the Puget Sound for emerging musicians to live. “Bremerton just has so much potential. I think the music scene over here is very healthy.”
Hoffman organizes and performs at quarterly benefit concerts on Bainbridge Island - the previous one in February raised $1,000 for Doctors Without Borders and Friends of the Orphans of Haiti, in honor of the Port Orchard woman Molly Hightower, who died in January’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake while working for the organization. Hoffman is contemplating the theme of the next fundraiser in July, which will also benefit Haiti.