The Howlin’ Wolf was founded in 1988 by brothers Jack and Jeff Groetsch (Spera, Keith. “Howlin’ Wolf could be yours for $400,000.” The Times Picayune: Lagniappe 14 July, 2000. Tulane University: Hogan Jazz Archives. 23 October, 2012). The venue was originally opened as a small bar in ‘Fat City,’ a neighborhood in Metairie that was home to many night clubs and bars in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The brothers’ intention was to promote local, home-grown music at their venue. The club was named after blues legend Chester Burnett, a.k.a. “Howlin’ Wolf.” At 6’3” and weighing over 250 pounds, Burnett is said to have had one of the loudest, booming voices and most imposing stage presence of any blues musician (“Historical Biography: Chester Burnett.” Essortment. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2012). The imposing association with the name “Howlin’ Wolf” may have seemed a bit odd and unfitting for a small club in Fat City, but the club would soon grow to more appropriately carry the name of the Mississippi native blues legend.
Move to the Warehouse District
After outgrowing the small bar in Fat City, the Groetsch brothers decided to move the club to a larger 7,000 square foot facility in an old cotton warehouse at 828 S. Peters, in the Warehouse District. The Groetsch brothers continued to run the Howlin’ Wolf from this location for about a decade after the move. Then, in the summer of 2000, Jack and Jeff Groetsch decided to sell their club. In an interview with Times Picayune reporter Keith Spera, Jack Groetsch said, “Running a club is not something we wanted to do forever. So when do you put it up for sale – when you’re so burnt out that you don’t want to have anything to do with it, or when it’s still on the positive side?”(Spera). After 12 years of operating the Howlin’ Wolf, the club had become a symbol of the contemporary New Orleans live music culture and scene. The Groetsch brothers wanted to make sure that the buyer of the club was someone who could carry on the musical tradition that they had established.
In September of 2000, a couple months after putting the club up for sale, Jack and Jeff Groetsch found a potential buyer in fellow club owner, Howie Kaplan. Previously a booking agent in Tampa until 1997, Howie Kaplan bought the “Rock ‘n Bock” club in Metairie when he moved to New Orleans. Kaplan was familiar with the live music scene in the New Orleans metropolitan area, and the importance of the tradition attached to the Howlin’ Wolf name. Kaplan “[planned] to focus on local music of every description” at his newly acquired club, and that is exactly what he did (Spera). The Groetsch brothers leased the space of their club, and therefore were only able to sell the club name and some lighting and sound equipment. However, Kaplan still decided to keep the club in the same location from when he took over in October 2000 until the fall of 2005.
In August, 2005, catastrophe struck the city of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Flood waters from the broken levees put some areas of the city under at least 8 feet of water. Fortunately, the Warehouse District was one of the few areas in New Orleans that did not have crippling flood damage that the rest of the city faced. Although the Warehouse District was virtually untouched by water damage, the storm reached a Category 2 level throughout the city, with winds reaching upwards of 90 miles per hour. With the billions of dollars in devastating damage to the city from the storm and massive loss of population, the fate of the newly established culture in the Warehouse District hung in the balance.
Howie Kaplan and the Howlin’ Wolf took part in reestablishing the art and music culture of the Warehouse District after the storm. Many different cities in the south, such as Dallas, Austin, and Houston tried to convince Kaplan to move to their city and launch a new music scene. Kaplan, however, chose to re-open his club in New Orleans. He justified his decision by saying, “You can’t just walk away from your family, history, and home” (“Club is sign of life in Warehouse District of New Orleans.” New Orleans City Business 26 December, 2005. Regional Business News. EBSCOhost: Tulane University. 22 October, 2012).
Move to 907 South Peters
As a sign of optimism, Kaplan decided to move his operation to a building one block up river, at 907 S. Peters Street. The new space was an upgrade from the former 7,000 square foot venue, to a much larger 10,000 square foot space with a capacity of about 1,000 patrons. Not only did the Howlin’ Wolf upgrade by moving to its new larger facility down the street, but the move also created an opportunity for a new music club to open in its old facility. Robert LeBlanc, Luis Espinel, and Remi DeMatteo, former managers of Altitude 33 and Ray’s Over the River, had two clubs that were destroyed during the storm and never reopened. This group decided to open a new club, The Republic, at the former site of the Howlin’ Wolf at 828 South Peters. In a December 2005 interview about the new club opening, LeBlanc explained, “We [wanted] to provide an outlet for people to do interesting things because we [needed] to keep people in the city and reestablish the fabric.” LeBlanc suggested that upgrading the Howlin’ Wolf, as well as establishing the new club at its former site, was not only good for business, but was driven by the conscious effort to revitalize the city’s cultural fabric and return the city back to normal (“Club is sign of life in Warehouse District of New Orleans”).
Exterior of the Howlin’ Wolf
The Howlin’ Wolf at its current location. Photo by Matt Skoda.
The current facility of the Howlin’ Wolf is symbolic of the culture of New Orleans. As a whole, the venue is a collection of snapshots of the city. Although the Howlin’ Wolf today would look out of place in the Warehouse District, during its industrial boom years the building is characteristic of the Warehouse District at its core. It is a masonry building with a large gabled roof. On the exterior there hangs a “Howlin’ Wolf” sign above the chamfered corner entrance with linear lights above. There are two large murals painted by the artist, Michalopoulos, on the walls along the street edges. They depict music scenes and gives those who look at it a glimpse of the city. There are depictions of Louis Armstrong performing on one wall, while a second line takes place on the other. The murals are only interrupted by the roofline and the yellow painted brick at the corner entrance to the club. Along the South Peters street facade, the mural continues even onto the corrugated metal siding that lines the gabled portion of the wall.
Interior of the Howlin’ Wolf
Inside the club, a hodgepodge of artifacts is everywhere. To start, there are two “shotgun houses” flanking the stage. Though some may think of these decorations as tacky and hindrances to the acoustical integrity of the space, they do add an indescribably unique aspect to the character of the space. Some other additions to the space are less obvious, but nonetheless rich. The black curtains that hang in the space were taken from the historic Orpheum Theatre before it was renovated in the 1980’s. The mahogany bar was taken from Al Capone’s Chicago hotel, the Lexington, before it was demolished. “The detail on this piece is extraordinary, down to the Fleur de Lis that adorn its face” (“The Howlin’ Wolf.” The Howlin Wolf. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2012). Though the addition of a bar from Chicago might seem out of place, it is fitting. Chester Burnett, the Howlin’ Wolf after whom the club was named, gained most of his popularity while recording his music in Chicago. The addition of the bar is a nod to the spread of New Orleans music to the rest of the country and the effect it has had on other genres of music in the past century.