Ask Jody Williams about Howlin' Wolf's legacy, and he'll rattle off remarkable numbers about the old Chicago bluesman.
Not chart statistics. Measurements.
"Well, he was a pretty big man," said Williams, 78, who played guitar for Wolf (a.k.a. Chester Arthur Burnett) in the 1950s. "He wore about a size 16 shoe, I think. He was a good showman, a really commanding presence. I mean, he had about a 100-foot cord on his microphone. That meant he would walk all around the club, up and down the bar."
Wolf, who died in 1976, made a shtick out of being large and fearsome; a typical snarled lyric went, "When you come home, you can eat pork and bean / I eats more chicken any man seen." His voice, which brayed and rattled and sometimes leaped to a falsetto howl, sounded the way a real wolf might sound if it could sing in English.
When Williams takes the stage next week to play some of Wolf's repertoire, though, there won't be a bar to climb on, and the hardscrabble juke-joint world where Wolf and others honed their personas will be out of sight, if not out of mind.
Williams and fellow headliners Bob Margolin, James Cotton, Tinsley Ellis and the Fabulous Thunderbirds will bring their "Blues at the Crossroads Two" tour to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. For a night, the elegant confines of the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall will play host to music created in some of America's bleakest circumstances.
The show, which follows the first "Blues at the Crossroads" tour that stopped by Segerstrom in 2011, pays tribute to Wolf and another blues icon, Muddy Waters. In addition to being a tribute, it's a family reunion of sorts. Nearly all the performers onstage played at some point with Waters or Wolf, and some knew them long before the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others helped bring their songs to a wide audience.
With the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis inducting a new class every year, with preteen guitar students learning B.B. King riffs, the blues is hardly an underground art form anymore. Still, tour producer Ron Hausfeld doesn't feel the craft gets the recognition it deserves.
"I don't feel it's appreciated as much as it should be," he said Tuesday by phone from Georgia. "It's America's baby, you know?"
Sweet home Chicago
The first time Hausfeld brought his revue to Costa Mesa, he brought a valuable — and fragile — link to that baby's past.
A blues lover all his life, Hausfeld joined with a colleague at the Ted Kurland Associates to set up the "Crossroads" tour two years ago. He had a special occasion to celebrate, and a particular artist he wanted to help celebrate it.
The occasion was the pending 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson, the "King of the Delta Blues", who recorded 29 songs before his death by poisoning in 1938. Hausfeld's agency put together a lineup of veteran bluesmen to play Johnson's songs and others — and among those on the bill was David "Honeyboy" Edwards, believed to be the last surviving person to play with Johnson.
Even the show's title tipped a hat toward the absent guest of honor; according to legend, Johnson ventured to a Mississippi crossroads one midnight to give the devil his soul in exchange for guitar mastery.
In January 2011, Edwards joined the rest of the lineup for a pair of shows at Segerstrom. Later that year, he died at age 96.
With even Clapton, Mick Jagger and the others who gleaned from Johnson's generation now entering their 70s, links to the blues' charter class are increasingly rare. Hausfeld got another sobering reminder of that while planning "Blues at the Crossroads Two" — guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who accompanied Wolf for years, passed on in December 2011.
"We're all getting old, aren't we?" Hausfeld said with a half-chuckle.
When the tour kicked off in Downers Grove, Ill., in January, that didn't seem to matter, at least for a couple of hours. At the Tivoli Theatre, which dates to 1928, the lineup took the stage a half hour's drive from the Chess Records studio on Chicago's South Side, where Wolf and Waters once laid down their sides.
Margolin and Cotton, who played with Waters in the 1970s, reunited to pay tribute to their mentor. Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson — whom Waters, according to the tour's press kit, once called his favorite harmonica player and singer — led a lineup of younger bandmates.