"Howlin' Wolf was a legend," Eddie Shaw says matter-of-factly.
Of course, no one would accuse Shaw, 48, of being entirely objective on the subject. For 14 years his gruff tenor saxophone served to underline Wolf's ferocious howl, a truly fearsome voice that made instant believers of listeners who had never heard of the Mississippi Delta blues tradition that originally inspired Wolf, or the postwar electric sound of Chicago blues that he later adopted.
After Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) died in 1976, Shaw decided to keep his music alive and his band intact. Despite some personnel changes, Eddie Shaw and The Wolf Gang have been playing ever since. The band performs at the Psyche Delly Friday and Saturday nights.
What most impressed Shaw about Wolf wasn't his singing, even though his voice sometimes seemed every bit as imposing as his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame. Rather, it was what Shaw calls Wolf's "road sense. He taught me a lot about people, dignity and respect.
"Some people said Wolf was a hard man to get along with, but I found out different. We were family. White kids were making tons of money off the kind of music Wolf was singing all his life, but that never really bothered him.
"A lot of these guys really loved Wolf. I remember when Bill Wyman [bassist for the Rolling Stones] came out and stayed at Wolf's home. [Later,] the Stones played at a Chicago auditorium with Wolf as a special guest . . . I don't think any of the real blues musicians get what they deserve, but this is a fact of life -- you deal with it the best you can. Wolf did, without ever losing his dignity."
When Wolf suffered ill health in the early '70s, following several heart attacks and a severe auto accident, Shaw, then his bandleader and manager, insisted that he take it easy on stage. Ironically, thanks to the Stones and a recording with a number of other British rock stars, including Eric Clapton ("The London Sessions"), Wolf's greatest popular acceptance came when his death was imminent.
"Wolf was real sick during the 'London Sessions,' " recalls Shaw, who helped arrange the material for the album. "He started out teaching everyone the chord changes, but eventually he just let them go on their own. He just wasn't himself."
Born in Greenville, Miss., Shaw landed his first job with B.B. King -- as a car washer. Whenever King performed in Greenville, Shaw, all of 14 years old, would "run up to his hotel and get his car keys. I'd wash his car and then spin around town," he says with a laugh. "He's always been good to me. We open about a dozen concerts a year for him now, including some overseas."
Five years later, Shaw sat in with Muddy Waters in Greenville, earning himself a two-year stint in the Waters band and a trip to Chicago, where he later worked with Magic Sam and Otis Rush before joining the Wolf Gang.
For a while, Shaw even ran his own club on Chicago's North Side, though it's not a line of work he'd recommend. "Club owners work the hardest and are the last to get paid," he says, the bad taste in his mouth lingering. "Let me stay a musician."
So Shaw is happy to be back on the bandstand, even if that means traveling across the country in a "beat-up van" and adhering to a schedule that's hectic verging on impossible. There's always satisfaction to be found in the music. "We play to mostly white audiences, even in Chicago," he says. "If you want to get to them, you've got to play what I call high-energy blues. We mix Wolf's tunes with a lot of our own and try to create some excitement out there. The music has to be hot."
In the past, the Wolf Gang depended on Shaw and guitarist Hubert Sumlin to spark that excitement. When Sumlin, one of the most underrated and inventive guitarists of the electric blues era, left the band, he was replaced by his longtime prote'ge', Vann Shaw -- Eddie's 21-year-old son. "I'm real proud of him," says the elder Shaw. "He's been getting great responses from magazines like Guitar Player, but best of all he fits right in."