“The idea of ‘Spoonful’ was that it doesn’t take a large quantity of anything to be good. If you have a little money when you need it, you’re right there in the right spot, that’ll buy you a whole lot.
Howlin’ Wolf was a musical giant in every way. He stood six-foot-three, weighed almost three hundred pounds, wore size seventeen shoes, and poured out his darkest sorrows onstage in a voice like a raging chainsaw. His sound still terrifies and inspires half a century after his first hits.
Born Chester Burnett in 1910, the Howlin’ Wolf survived a grim childhood and hardscrabble youth as a sharecropper in Mississippi. He began his career by playing and singing with the first Delta blues stars for two decades in perilous juke joints. He was present at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in West Memphis, Arkansas and Memphis,
Tennessee, where Sam Phillips—who also discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis—called Wolf his “greatest discovery.” Wolf helped define the sound of electric blues and vied with rival Muddy Waters as the king of Chicago blues, and was heard far and wide, from house parties at apartments in Houston to clubs and hotels up north in Toronto and New York.
His sound travelled around the country and became universal. He ended his career performing and recording with the world’s most famous rock stars. His passion for music kept him performing—despite devastating physical problems—right up to his death in January 1976.
Drafted in 1941, Wolf went into the Army Signal Corps and spent his time in the service mostly in the Pacific Northwest at Fort Lewis, Washington and Camp Adair, Oregon.
He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and was discharged from the Army, and soon moved with his girlfriend to a house in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1945, his girlfriend also suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.
Wolf left Tennessee and returned to playing music, and helping his father on his farm during the spring and fall. The rest of the year, Wolf was traveling through the South, playing with Delta bluesmen such as Willie Brown and Son House.
In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson. He also got a spot on radio station KWEM, playing blues and endorsing farm gear.
In 1951, Wolf came to the attention of a young Memphis record producer, Sam Phillips, who took him into the studio and recorded “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years,” and leased them to Chess Records.
Released in 1952, they made it to the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B charts. Wolf cut other songs that Phillips farmed out both to Chess and RPM. Chess eventually won the fight for Wolf, who moved to Chicago in 1953 and called the city home for the rest of his life.
Phillips, who certainly recognized musical talent (he later “discovered” Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Rich), said that Wolf was his greatest discovery and losing Wolf to Chicago was his biggest career disappointment.
“Chester Burnett had such a soulful sound that even though his words were always good blues words, that man didn’t have to say a sound. Just like his song ‘Moanin’ at Midnight.’…When it came out, it was as if everything just stopped, everything that was going on. Time stopped. Everything stopped. And you heard the Wolf.
Let’s have a look now on Howlin’ Wolf’s top six albums:
6. Howlin’ Wolf
Often known as the Rocking Chair album, because of the cover art. This time Willie Dixon not only played bass but wrote most of the songs, and he came up with a pile of classics including “The Red Rooster”, “Spoonful”, “Down In The Bottom”, “Back Door Man”. The backing is spare, leaving maximum room for Wolf’s emotional howl and occasional bursts of harmonica, and his dramatic presence propels the lesser material (“You’ll Be Mine”) and makes the great songs (almost everything) sheer magic.
Sumlin‘s precise one-string soloing is also captured at its best (“Wang Dang Doodle,” later recorded by Koko Taylor and the Pointer Sisters). Wolf’s two compositions are “Tell Me” and “Who’s Been Talkin’,” both of which also feature Willie Johnson on lead guitar; Abe Locke adds tenor sax to “Howlin’ For My Baby”; other musicians include Kennard, Johnny Jones and Kenny Gray (piano); Jimmy Rogers and Smokey Smothers (guitar); Sammy Lay, Leary, Fred Below and Phillips (drums). Moanin’may be more visceral and groundbreaking, but these cuts are better worked out, better recorded, and better differentiated.
5. Moanin’ In The Moonlight
Two songs were cut in Memphis in 1951: the title track and “How Many More Years” (with Ike Turner on piano; the song was later ripped off by Zeppelin). But the bulk of the disc is the 50s single sides that made Howlin’ Wolf’s reputation, including electric blues classics “Smokestack Lightning” “I’m Leaving You”, “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” and Willie Dixon’s “Evil” – the only tune Wolf didn’t write.
Willie Johnson plays lead guitar on about half the tunes (title track) with Hubert Sumlin turning up on the rest – they’re both on “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Piano duties are split between Otis Spann and Hosea Lee Kennard, Earl Phillips, Willie Steel and S.P. Leary are on drums, and Dixon’s on bass. Available on a twofer with Howlin’ Wolf – that configuration’s an absolute must-have.
4. The Real Folk Blues
The classic here is “Killing Floor” (later recorded by Jimi Hendrix and the Electric Flag), but there’s plenty more good stuff. Two tracks feature Buddy Guy on bass: “Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy” and “Built for Comfort” – both should be anthems of the Fat Pride movement. Led by Hubert Sumlin’s acerbic, trebly guitar, the Chess house band sounds great, frequently supplemented by Arnold Rogers and Donald Hawkins on tenor and baritone sax.
Generally Wolf sticks close to his usual style, though “Louise” is a tender love song that’s surprisingly close to Sam Cooke-style soul. Three 50s leftovers are included: “Poor Boy,” “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and the powerful story-song “Natchez Burning.”
3. The Chess Box
Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) is, as the Blues Hound says “a singer/persona whose ferocity has never been equaled and rarely even approached.” He stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds and his personality filled every iota of that frame. The guy just rips. “I just be in the field plowing and songs come to me you know…” he says on one of the spoken word segments here.
Wolf sowed a number of blues masterpieces for Chicago’s Chess Records, including ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ ‘Back Door Man’ ‘Spoonful’ ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘300 Pounds Of Joy’. These songs – covered by early rock luminaries such as the Grateful Dead, The Doors, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix – represent just the beginning of this treasure trove. For proof that absolute musical intensity doesn’t require ear shredding decibels or quicksilver guitar work, fire up Howlin’ Wolf’s epic Chess Box.
2. The Back Door Wolf
Recorded in 1973, this LP is definitely a product of its time. GRT, which had acquired Chess Records only four years previously, was trying to find a way to keep the younger record-buying public interested in its musicians without resorting to the psychedelic excesses of the previous decade’s last years. As a result, the album’s only major departure from Wolf’s established sound was the addition of Detroit Junior‘s electric harpsichord on the title track, “Speak Now Woman,” “You Turn Slick on Me,” and “Watergate Blues”.
While there are a significant number who just can’t accept the sound of this particular keyboard on a Howlin’ Wolf record, I don’t have a problem with it. Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Get NoGrindin’ (What’s the Matter with the Meal)”, recorded a year earlier, also featured harpsichord (although according to discographies, the keyboard player is Pinetop Perkins), and somehow its baroque sound gives it a bit of funky edge in a similar fashion to the aforementioned numbers by Wolf.
1. Smokestack Lightning
Greatness is notoriously difficult to define, but it’s easy to demonstrate. Here it is. The Wolf, recorded by Chess throughout the 1950s in Chicago and Memphis, in a transport of vulpine hunger, including the greatest recording ever made: the title track. You get four CDs, tasteful packaging and essays and documentation, and probably more music than you really need.
But proof, if any were needed, that righteous inspiration goes an awfully long way even in minute quantities. The song “Coon on the Moon”—about a black president—seemed most unlikely at the time. Check out the first two songs on this album for cultural overtones and meanings. All these songs feature the great Hubert Sumlin on guitar.
Thank you for reading this article about the blues giant, do not forget to read also the next one, which will be about Muddy Waters.