“It’s been about three years since I took over from Jack Groetsch,” Howie Kaplan, the ever-amiable proprietor of the Howlin’ Wolf explains. “A little piece came out in Keith Spera’s ‘Lagniappe’ column that the Howlin’ Wolf was for sale. That was on a Friday. On Monday, I called Jack.
“I wasn’t friends with Jack. I just knew him more by name than anything else. We sat down for a five-minute meeting on Monday at about 1 o’clock and we didn’t finish until after 5. We talked about how much time he had put in and how he had little girls and horses and dogs and it just took off from there.
‘We went through the whole process of transferring everything and starting over—the licenses, the money, and the booking. Jack’s story was that for every dollar he made, he put three back into the business. You could see that because over the years he spent a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of sweat on the place. We’ve kept that tradition alive. We could make a lot more money doing a lot of other things. We could do karaoke or we could be a daiquiri bar or we could be a dance club. We could probably make more money doing that. But this is fun.
“At the time, I owned a place called Rock ‘n’ Bock. It was a tiny little 2,000 square foot place in Metairie, off a service road. I started doing bands just by accident. A group of regulars that played darts wanted a place for their band to play. I told them, ‘I don’t have anything going on Friday if you want to come in.’ That kind of grew into a scene.
“A lot of people still refer to it as the ‘Rock ‘n’ Bock Days’—there was a real scene because the bands were supporting each other. There’d be times you’d see 50 people out there and not one of them was just some normal Joe Blow off the street—it was all the musicians from other bands. It was kind of neat to see the bands support each other. Even if they weren’t there for the music, they were there for that scene. There was no guest list—everybody paid their five dollars.
“Some of that transferred over to the Wolf, but it’s different. You’re in New Orleans, in the downtown area. It’s a much bigger place. It’s a different scene now.
Howie has been a diehard fan of rock since adolescence, attending his first rock concert at 13: Quiet Riot opening for Iron Maiden. Eighteen years later, Quiet Riot entertained Howie at his Howlin’ Wolf birthday party.
As a club owner and rock devotee, Howie has his own theories concerning what makes a great rock band: “Listening to your fans. Playing to the crowd. Bag O’ Donuts is probably the best rock band in town. A lot of people would want to take a skewer to my head for saying that. I’m not a fan of rock bands per se, I’m a fan of the shows they put on.
“You can’t just write good songs. You need to be able to connect with your crowd. What a really good band does is there may be a thousand people in the room but that guy standing in the corner by the bar by himself with a beer in his hand thinks that the guy on stage is talking to him. You need to be able to connect with what’s going on on the other side of that stage. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to go anywhere. If it’s a 50-person place or a 50,000-person place, you need to be able to find a way to make that connection. It’s not just about what you’re playing—it’s about how you’re playing, how you’re presenting yourself to your audience.
“That spills over, not just from the stage, but when you’re done, are you thanking the people? These people were sitting at home in their easy chair or on their couch. They got up, hopefully took a shower, got dressed—hopefully—got in their car, drove to this place, maybe paid for parking, took more money out of their wallet for the cover charge and watched you play. That took a great deal of effort for somebody to get up and do that. People need to be thanked for that.
“The best rock band in the nation is the Pleasure Club. You’ve got a band that knows exactly what I was just talking about: they know how to connect with their crowd, they know how to write good music, they know how to perform it well and they take their time and work their crowd. James Hall has got to be one of the most charismatic and enigmatic people you’ll ever meet. Off the stage he’s entirely different. He turns that on and the crowd just sits there and watches him.
“Pleasure Club recorded a live CD at the Wolf and they came on and did 50 minutes of their best stuff. There was no encore, no talking to the crowd, no nothing. He just sat there and held ’em in his hand with what he was doing. It was amazing. The crowd of 500 people stood around for a half-hour afterwards, not knowing what to do next. They wouldn’t leave. They just stood there.”
This month, the Howlin’ Wolf celebrates its 15th anniversary, an event heralded by Cowboy Mouth’s first gig at the club in eight years, a surf music seminar conducted by Dick Dale and a riotous recital by Ratt Poison, the ’80s metal cover band.
“I’m a much more mellow person than I was three years ago,” confesses Howie. “You have bands come in, screaming and yelling at everybody and I’m like, ‘We gotta be here all night. We can either be nice to each other or not be nice. If you scream, we’ll still have a fun time but I’m gonna win. You’re in my home. My mom made you cookies.’
“My mom [Maxine Kaplan] makes cookies for all the out-of-town acts. She puts them in these little bags and she actually made a stamp that says ‘Howlin’ Wolf.’ She stamps them and gives them away. It goes on all the bids and contracts. It says ‘X amount of dollars plus X after a certain percentage plus Howie’s mom’s cookies.'”