Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf
Released January, 1962
I had to trade with Ang to get this main review. I swapped her Frank Sinatra for Howlin’ Wolf, and the way I see it, I’m the only winner out of that move. How much better was Howlin’ Wolf? (Also, I’ll probably spell Wolf with two F’s once or twice – force of habit). I consider myself fairly well versed in classic music, but this little project keeps reminding me how little I really know. I had never come across Howlin’ Wolf until this point – unless you count Robert Plant shouting “Shake for me girl, I wanna be your back door man!” in ‘Whole Lotta Love’. In fact, I know barely anything about the whole delta blues scene in the 60s. But let me tell ya, if it’s all like Wolffy, I’m in. How could you not be with tracks like ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and ‘Spoonful’. Howlin’ Wolf, or Chester Burnett as he was known to his parents, was born in Mississippi and had a pretty rough childhood. He was a big fella, standing 6’6″ and 140kg, which contributed to him becoming known as one of the loudest voices in blues. His mum turfed him out young, then when he was famous, she wanted nothing to do with him because he played the “Devil’s music”. Please. We all know the Devil’s music wouldn’t come along till 1996, when Nickleback released their first album…
Wolf met famed bluesman Charlie Patton in 1939 and Patton began teaching Wolf guitar and some on-stage antics to boot. After being discharged from the Army in 1943, he formed a band with some other local blues guys, and alternated between playing gigs and working on his dad’s farm. He was discovered in ’51 and signed to Memphis Recording Service by Sam Phillips. Wolf’s first recordings came later that year when Phillips leased Wolf’s recordings to both RPM Records and Chess Records, the latter of whom pop up a lot during the 60s… Chess eventually won out in the battle for Wolf’s signature. He moved to Chicago and set up a band that included a bunch of people over the years, but most notably, Buddy Guy. Wolf enjoyed chart success with his ’55 album “Moanin’ in the Moonlight”, before releasing our album “Howlin’ Wolf” in ’62.
I really enjoyed listening to this album. I liked the roughness of it, the unrefined edges, though possibly the roughness comes from 1960s recording equipment. There’s something about the chaotic intro to ‘Shake For Me’ that always gets my attention. The stabbing slide guitar is the standout instrument in the opening track, and continues through the whole album. In fact, the guitarist Hubert Sumlin was #43 in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”, and his work in this album lead it to be named as the third greatest guitar album of all time by Mojo magazine. I don’t know how much I agree with that though. ‘You’ll Be Mine’ features a bit of the howl that Wolf was famous for. He really goes to town on this track, and is backed by some solid piano playing too. ‘Who’s Been Talking’ is the quintessential blues song, fitting exactly with the twelve bar blues format. Opening with a harmonica riff, Wolf tells that stereotypical story of his baby leaving and doing him wrong. Hey, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?
‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and ‘Spoonful’ are my favourite tracks on the album. ‘Doodle’ is a fast paced, high tempo “party song”. I liked it, but apparently the bloke that wrote it hated it, and the bloke that sung it wasn’t a fan either! I wonder what that says about me. ‘Spoonful’ is a chill blues track, that was covered by heaps of people, most notably Cream. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but the fact it’s related to “Cocaine Blues”, and the fact Etta James did a version makes me think it’s probably about drugs.
‘Going’ Down Slow’ sees writer Willie Dixon getting his voice recorded by speaking the spoken word parts, which is quite cool. I dig me some spoken word. ‘Back Door Man’ is a track that I wonder if it would get made these days… The phrase “back door man” meant a man having an affair with a married woman. Apparently, the theme is common through blues over the decades. I guess married woman really liked the blues men?
It’s probably worth noting that nearly half the songs on this album have gone on to become blues standards recorded by myriad people over the years. Led Zeppelin and Cream recorded many Howlin’ Wolf songs not just from this album. I really liked listening to Howlin’ Wolf. It’s probably not going to stay on my iPod, but I can definitely understand why it was so influential.
Well this album certainly grew on me! This is definitely not the type of music I would ordinarily listen to, by any means. It’s rough around the edges, raw and for the first few listens Wolf’s voice really irritated me. However, these traits – its defining qualities – came to be the things that I enjoyed most about the album. Burnett possesses a raspy voice that reeks of bourbon and too many Marlboro’s, and his vocals have a sinister tone to them. I think that was one of the things that sucked me in, the ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude that his lyrics and tone exude. It is easy to draw the line of comparison between Wolf and later blues icons Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton, and Tom Waits, showing that his legacy was valuable and long-lived. You can see how these artists drew from elements of Wolf’s style and really made them their own. Highlights of the album include tracks written or popularized by Wolf, some of which were blues standards, including ‘Back Door Man’ and ‘Spoonful’. My personal favourite is ‘Little Baby’, a catchy toe tapper featuring saloon-style honky-tonk piano and centering around the 12- bar blues. I must say, I’m always intrigued by the infinite versatility of the 12-bar blues; how one melodic pattern can be re-used so many times in so many ways, beats me. Overall, listening to Howlin’ Wolf gave me a renewed appreciation for blues-style music. I enjoyed parts of the album and as I said, it grew on me, but I don’t see myself listening to it much – if ever – in the future.
I’ve never been a big fan of blues. All the music seems to sound the same. There’s three basic formulas: 1. Slow, moaning three chord numbers about not getting any. 2. Fast, moaning three chord numbers about how legendary you are in the sack. 3. Moaning songs that include a ‘dah-nuh-uhn-dah-nuh’ refrain over and over and highlight your sexual prowess and/or general awesomeness. This album has no doubt influenced countless other artists and is hailed as one of the benchmarks for the blues genre. Many bands have had hits with songs on this album (which is actually six of Howlin Wolf’s singles collected together), most notably The Rolling Stones. Released in November 1964, their classic version of ‘Little Red Rooster’, which is simply named ‘The Red Rooster’ here, remains to this day the only blues song to have ever topped the UK singles chart. The Doors’ cover of ‘Back Door Man’ became a popular live favourite, as did ‘Spoonful’ for supergroup Cream. I prefer each of those versions to what is on offer here. Put in the one place these songs just blur together, but taken separately they’re easier to digest. I did, however, quite like the Wolf’s raspy delivery on ‘You’ll Be Mine’ which I guess makes it my favourite song. I also enjoyed the instrumentation of ‘Down In The Bottom’ and his playful vocals in ‘Going Down Slow’ which includes the lyric “great googly moogly”. I found that it was great background music for cleaning the house as well, but it’s just not my thing. For blues enthusiasts only.
I’m not exactly sure where my love of blues comes from, but I have loved old blues like this as long as I can remember. This is the kind of album I listen to on a Sunday afternoon. There was something special happening in the 50/60s in the Chicago blues music scene. Howlin’ Wolf was one of the original blues men, along with artists Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Willie Dixon, who all recorded albums for Chess Records. The songs “Spoonful” and “Little Red Rooster”, both recorded first on this album, are covered by a billion blues artists, and with good reason as they are brilliant songs. There is certainly something special about Howlin’ Wolf and that voice. His vocal stylings went on to influence Captain Beefheart and later on Tom Waits. Being quite a massive Tom Waits fan it was really obvious to me the influence Howlin’ Wolf had on him. In fact the song ‘Who’s Been Talkin’‘, which Waits has covered live in concert, feels awfully familiar to the song ‘2.19’ from Wait’s album “Orphans”. “Howlin’ Wolf” has that shitty early 60s sound about it, but the songs are just plain fun. It’s pretty straight up blues. Lyrically it ventures from standard to quirky, with the majority of the lyrics written by blues man Willie Dixon. Vocally, well, you either love it or hate it. All of the songs are short and sweet, with only one song in twelve clocking in over the three minute mark. I love the man and I love this album. The fact the mix is shitty just adds something to it for me. It’s works with the rawness of the music. If it wasn’t for Howlin’ Wolf a lot of the English rocks bands in the 60s would sound very different. If you don’t like blues however I’d recommend you give this one a miss.