Howlin’ Wolf

TrackFirst recording
Moanin’' At MidnightChess 1479
How Many More YearsChess 1479
Crying At DaybreakRPM 340
No Place To GoChess 1566
Evil (Is Going On)Chess 1575
The Natchez Burnin’'Chess 1744
SpoonfulChess 1762
The Red RoosterChess 1804
I Ain’'t SuperstitiousChess 1823
Goin’' Down SlowChess 1813

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Contributor: Cal Taylor

Sam Phillips – he of Sun Records – who not only discovered Elvis but Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – once said that his greatest discovery was Howlin’ Wolf and that his second greatest discovery was Elvis Presley. That puts into some perspective how some might see Howlin’ Wolf in the history of music and Sam Phillips’ comment is high praise indeed.

1920s/1930s Country Blues, late 1930s/early 1940s Urban Blues, late 1940s/early 1950s R&B (Big Band Blues/Jump Blues/Blues Shouters), early 1950s Country/Rockabilly, mid to late 1950s Rock & Roll, early 1960s British groups dominance with a few sub-genres in between were all roots of what I think generally has just been termed ‘Rock’ for about the last fifty years.

All of the above categories were influences to form Rock as we now know it. However, over about a century of recorded music, very few artists’ careers transcended the history of Rock where one could detect the evolvement and were so individually influential. Howlin’ Wolf is one such artist. He is so important to Rock – seminal, I believe.

Other artists in the genres already mentioned were also very important in the history of Rock but they were either ‘of their time’ or were mainly only part of the transition process. Only a very small number were right there through most of the stages. Maybe good cases could be made for Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and B.B. King but despite the greatness of each of them, I think Howlin’ Wolf stands out in the evolution of Rock.

My Toppermost 10 for Howlin’ Wolf comprise recordings that were cut between 1951 and 1961 and, in chronological order, are some of the best examples of Chicago Blues ever made. He was just short of his 41st birthday when he made his first record for Sam Phillips in Memphis in May 1951. What Howlin’ Wolf and some others were doing in 1951, in evolution of Rock terms, was so advanced. Popular music of the time was in the Dark Ages and a few more years had yet to elapse before Howlin’ Wolf’s type of music would be generally known and acknowledged.

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Burnett in West Point, Mississippi, in 1910. Not many people could have claimed to have been taught by Charley Patton (see Toppermost #37), Robert Johnson (see Toppermost #55) and Sonny Boy Williamson II but Howlin’ Wolf is one. Charley Patton died in 1934 and Robert Johnson in 1938 but up to their deaths Wolf played with, and was influenced by, both – in particular, under Patton, he improved his guitar playing and learned ‘tricks of the trade’ to enhance his showmanship. Also, he played with Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1930s, who taught him to play and master the harmonica.

During World War II Howlin’ Wolf joined the army, aged 30, in 1941 and was honourably discharged towards the end of 1943. He returned to farming in West Memphis, Arkansas which he mixed with performing his music, as he had done prior to joining up.

In 1948, he formed a band which included Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, Willie Johnson, drummer Willie Steel and a young Junior Parker (another important artist in the history of Rock). Howlin’ Wolf’s local musical reputation continued to grow and grow. Between 1949 and 1952, he managed to get a regular slot on the West Memphis radio station, KWEM, where Sam Phillips first heard him. At the station Howlin’ Wolf worked again with Sonny Boy Williamson II. Around that time Elmore James and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup also featured on KWEM plus B.B. King made his first radio appearance there in 1949, to be followed a few years later by a fresh faced 18 year old called Elvis Presley, making his radio debut in 1953. Chester Burnett/Howlin’ Wolf had passed his 40th birthday and had still never made a record – but this was about to change.

Sam Phillips, businessman, DJ, record producer/executive was 28 at the time when he first recorded Howlin’ Wolf and a bit later he formed Sun Records (March 1952). Phillips is huge in the history of Rock & Roll and was responsible for many new careers in this ‘new’ music in the early 1950s. ‘Country’ singers were converted to Rock & Roll stars, as Rock & Roll became an accepted term for what Phillips was producing. However, that type of music did not just happen; it had evolved.

Howlin’ Wolf was never a Rock & Roll artist. His unusual, forceful voice was close to unique but he was, for the time, an up to date Blues singer for the consumption of a black audience when he first recorded in 1951. The music he performed was perceptibly an evolvement from an older type of Blues – but for modern devotees. A decade and a half later as Rock evolved further and black and white audiences integrated, Howlin’ Wolf, quite rightly, began to be recognised as highly influential in the whole history of Rock. Those 1951 recordings of Howlin’ Wolf are streets ahead of what white artists were recording at the time – but it is funny that it needed white music lovers to embrace Rock & Roll for, later down the line, black artists to get their due recognition. It is absolutely certain that Rock & Roll would not have existed without what black artists were performing and recording in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

On 14 May 1951, Sam Phillips at his studios in Memphis, Tennessee arranged for Howlin’ Wolf to make his first record, How Many More Years / Moanin’ At Midnight. Both of these sides made the US R&B top 10 and, chartwise, How Many More Years was Howlin’ Wolf’s biggest ever hit. Both are also in my Toppermost 10. On How Many More Years, a 19 year old Ike Turner (about six years before he met young Tina) played piano and on both recordings Howlin’ Wolf was backed by Willie Johnson on guitar and Willie Steel on drums. This record was made before Sun Records existed and Sam Phillips would lease out his recordings, in this case to Chess Records in Chicago.

Around four months later, in September and October 1951, across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas Howlin’ Wolf recorded ten tracks in three different sessions. Included in these was a recording that was the original version of Smokestack Lightnin’, over four years before it was to be re-recorded by Chess in Chicago in January 1956. This 1951 recording makes my top 10 – the same cut was called Crying At Daybreak on the single but Crying At Daylight on an LP track. These ten sides were made for the Bihari brothers and three singles resulted, released on their Los Angeles based RPM label.

In December 1951 and January 1952, he cut another twelve tracks with Sam Phillips in Memphis which resulted in two Chess singles being released and, a month later, a further eight tracks in West Memphis for the Bihari brothers, none of which was released as a single. A storm was brewing over the rights to issue further Howlin’ Wolf material between the Chess and Bihari brothers, eventually won by Chess. Howlin’ Wolf, late in 1952 and into 1953, recorded a further sixteen tracks in Memphis, producing two more Chess singles, before making the big move north to base himself in Chicago.

Just two months before Howlin’ Wolf made his first record, at the beginning of March 1951, at the same Sam Phillips’ studio Ike Turner & His Rhythm Kings cut five tracks. The personnel: Ike Turner (piano), Jackie Brenston and Raymond Hill (tenor saxophones), Willie Kizart (guitar) and Willie Sims (drums). These were sold to Chess who released two successive singles, Chess 1458 and 1459 – the latter as Ike Turner & His Rhythm Kings and the former as Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, a group that did not exist. Brenston was an occasional vocalist in Ike Turner’s group but he did sing on Chess 1458 and that song was Rocket 88 – seen by many as a candidate for the first-ever Rock & Roll record. However, it did borrow from both Jimmy Liggins’ 1947 Cadillac Boogie and Pete Johnson’s 1949 instrumental Rocket 88 Boogie. Later, the piano intro to Little Richard’s 1958 recording of Good Golly Miss Molly was taken directly from Rocket 88.

Also important in the history of Rock & Roll was the fact that Rocket 88 was covered by Bill Haley in 1951, which brought it to white audiences. Prior to that Bill Haley had only sung ‘Country’ numbers. It seems, though, that from then on a sizeable number of ‘Country’ artists started adopting some black music with either outright cover versions or by incorporating elements of their style. There are hundreds of examples over the following four or five years of black artists’ songs being recorded by white artists, to give birth to what has been labelled Rock & Roll: Shake Rattle and Roll (1954), Big Joe Turner/Bill Haley (again); That’s All Right, Mama originally recorded by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup in 1946 re-released in 1949 and Elvis’s first commercial record (as That’s All Right) in 1954 (Crudup’s song had borrowed some of its lyrics from a 1926 Blind Lemon Jefferson recording That Black Snake Moan); Carl Perkins recorded Matchbox in 1956 having been originally done by Blind Lemon in 1927; Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On in 1957 two years after Big Maybelle’s recording; and Elvis, of course, had one of his biggest Rock & Roll hits in 1956 with a cover of Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s Hound Dog recorded in 1952 and a R&B chart topper in 1953.

In this period in the mid-1950s Chicago Blues, mainly on the Chess/Checker labels, had really taken off – still mainly for black audiences but more and more reaching white audiences, especially when Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry started recording for the labels in 1955.

Howlin’ Wolf’s first recording in Chicago in March 1954 was No Place To Go (sometimes called You Gonna Wreck My Life). This makes my top 10. The backing personnel on this recording are Otis Spann (piano), Lee Cooper (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass) and Freddie Below (drums). Two months later in May 1954 he recorded Evil (Is Going On) which also makes my top 10. On this record Hubert Sumlin played guitar and he remained his regular guitarist until Howlin’ Wolf’s death in 1976.

Smokestack Lightnin’, the updated version of Crying At Daybreak/ Daylight, was recorded in January 1956. The song had its roots from 1930 when the Mississippi Sheiks’ Stop And Listen Blues and Charley Patton’s Moon Going Down both mention ‘smokestack’ and ‘shine like gold’. The follow-up was I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), which was basically the same tune and an updated version of Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink Of Water Blues (1928).

The next item in my top 10 is The Natchez Burnin’ (1956). It recalls a terrible tragedy that occurred in 1940 when over 200 lost their lives when a packed dance hall called the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi caught fire and burnt down. It still remains one of America’s biggest ever fire disasters.

Howlin’ Wolf continued to make very good records throughout the rest of the 1950s but in 1960 and 1961 he hit another purple patch. Up to this time his sole release in the UK was an EP on Decca’s London label which was issued in 1957 when they had the rights to distribute the Chess catalogue. This EP, which would have been barely promoted, was called Rhythm And Blues With Howlin’ Wolf, included Smokestack Lightnin’ but sold poorly.

In 1960 and 1961 Howlin’ Wolf made four tracks that complete my top 10 and include some of the best things he ever recorded. These four magnificent recordings were:

Spoonful (1960) which gave the writing credit to Willie Dixon but the idea was heavily borrowed from Papa Charlie Jackson’s 1925 and Charley Patton’s 1929 recordings, but Howlin’ Wolf’s new version was top-rate modern Blues – an absolutely fantastic record. Rock supergroup Cream covered the song on their debut album Fresh Cream in 1966.

The Red Rooster (1961), again with writing credit to Willie Dixon and again, too, also heavily borrowed from Walter Rhodes’ The Crowing Rooster (1927) and Charley Patton’s Banty Rooster Blues (1929) – another great record by Howlin’ Wolf. Sam Cooke actually did a version called Little Red Rooster which made high positions in both the US pop and R&B charts in 1963. Of course, the most well known version now is the Rolling Stones’ 1964 cover, which topped the UK charts.

I Ain’t Superstitious (1961), written by Willie Dixon, was released as a single in the UK on Pye International in their ‘R & B Series’ in 1963 – Pye having secured the rights to issue Chess material from 1961 and having launched the series the previous year. This song was covered by the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart on vocals, on their initial album Truth in 1968. Amongst several Howlin’ Wolf covers they did, Grateful Dead also did a version of this song.

Goin’ Down Slow was recorded on the same day in December 1961, immediately following I Ain’t Superstitious. It is one of my all time favourite Howlin’ Wolf tracks. At the time when I first heard it in 1963, while still at school, I fell in love with the song. It had been released on a Pye International EP. Howlin’ Wolf sounded like no other singer I had heard and the instrumental backing was unbelievable. When I passed on my new discovery to my schoolmates we formed an impromptu fan club, which to an extent, still exists today over fifty years on.

Goin’ Down Slow was actually written and recorded by James Oden, or St. Louis Jimmy, in 1941. Twenty years later Howlin’ Wolf brought it right up to date with that unbelievable backing – the phenomenal crashing guitar work of Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers – out of this world! As an impressionable teenager in 1963 I thought the lyrics were great:

Now look-a here I did not say I was a millionaire
But I said I have spent more money than a millionaire
‘Cause if I had-a kept all the money that I’d already spent
I would have been a millionaire a long time ago
And women? … Great googly moogly …

At the time Goin’ Down Slow was being recorded, Frankie Vaughan was top of the British charts, in the middle of 1962 Frank Ifield was the best selling recording artist and topped the charts and the Bachelors and Val Doonican still hadn’t arrived yet! To my mind there was such a gulf in the so-exciting stuff Wolf was producing, compared with the mundane pop fare we were being dished up this side of the Atlantic. In 1951 Howlin’ Wolf was ahead of the game and in 1961 he was too – but things were to change in just over a year; the Brits were going to rule the music world.

An oversimplified synopsis of the history of Rock is that it grew from black music, Blues and R&B, became more prominent once adopted by white artists and continued to grow in popularity, whether played by blacks or whites, when played in front of increasing mainly white audiences until it became universally accepted for what we now know it to be.

One of the stages had happened in the mid-1950s with Rock & Roll. Another thing that was happening gradually in the US was the growing influence of the annual Newport Jazz Festival which started in 1954 and the offshoot Folk Festival that started in 1959. In Rhode Island the music was performed in front of almost exclusively white audiences. By 1958 the Jazz Festival had widened its horizon to include such artists as Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Big Maybelle. In 1960, Muddy Waters and Nina Simone appeared at the Jazz Festival whilst Robert Pete Williams and the Reverend Gary Davis appeared at the Folk Festival and John Lee Hooker performed at both. Many US whites would never have seen these types of artists before. In the 1963 Folk Festival, Mississippi John Hurt performed, in 1964 Sleepy John Estes and Fred McDowell and in 1965 the Muddy Waters band, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon played at the Jazz Festival. In Britain and Europe, an American Folk Blues Festival toured annually from 1962 onwards, introducing many older performers to a new audience. Their music was getting heard wider and wider afield and more and more European groups were starting to play Blues/R&B type material. Howlin’ Wolf performed in the 1964 Blues Festival which had three October dates in the UK and he stole the show when he did the Newport Folk Festival in the US in 1966.

There was a R&B ‘revolution’ in the UK which had started to take off in 1961, grew more in 1962 and ‘exploded’ in 1963 and 1964 until by about 1966/1967 that music was fully integrated into everyday rock/pop culture. Much of the music played by British bands either came directly from 1950s and 1960s Blues, in particular Chicago Blues, or new material based on that type of music – that music having evolved from other variants of the Blues from the 1920s onwards.

What I have always found amusing is that from 1964 the so-called Brit invasion of the US – when UK acts dominated the US charts for two or three years – was largely indigenous American music being sold back to the Americans, most of whom seemed to be completely oblivious of that fact and believed it to be a brand new type of music!

Acknowledging the original source of the Blues-based material and actually crediting songwriters was often patchy. Having just had five US top 40 hits in the previous nine months, the Rolling Stones to their eternal credit were instrumental in ensuring that Howlin’ Wolf also appeared when they were booked for the top TV show ‘Shindig’ in May 1965. This was the only time ever that Howlin’ Wolf performed on a US national TV programme. By contrast there were less scrupulous groups, such as Led Zeppelin, who did not give due credit and seemed quite happy to pocket royalties for songs they said they had written but, in fact, had plagiarised.

Howlin’ Wolf endeared fans further when in May 1970 he recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions with Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, plus Wolf’s own guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who Clapton insisted should be present contrary to Marshall Chess’s original wishes. Later, other artists including Stevie Winwood who was touring in America, were overdubbed onto some tracks at the Chess Chicago studios and the album was released in the summer of 1971.

In his later years Howlin’ Wolf suffered several heart attacks and was badly injured in a car accident that left him with permanently damaged kidneys but he continued to perform up to November 1975 before he died, aged 65, in January 1976.

In 1973, Wolf recorded a studio album called The Back Door Wolf which included a track called Coon On The Moon written by band member Eddie Shaw. In the 1950s and 1960s ‘answer’ records were quite popular but, perhaps, Coon On The Moon might be the absolute, ultimate ‘answer’ record ever …

In 1905 a popular song was written called If The Man In The Moon Were A Coon. A 1907 rendition, with lyrics, can be found here. Howlin’ Wolf’s Coon On The Moon includes the lines:

You know they called us coons
Said we didn’t have no sense
You gonna wake up one morning
And the old coon will be your President.

I think Shaw and Wolf had the last laugh and deserve top marks for their foresight in predicting the first black President of the United States thirty five years before it happened!

Overall, Howlin’ Wolf’s influence is still a little underrated but as time goes on and there are more things written about 20th century music the importance of his part in it will grow too. He has received some recognition, including being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991 as a noted ‘early influence’. His songs, Smokestack Lightnin’, Spoonful and The Red Rooster received recognition by being included in the top 500 songs that shaped Rock & Roll. Separately, too, in 1999 Smokestack Lightnin’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.

He is remembered in other ways as well – in West Point, near to where he was born, there is an annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival. There is also a Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society. The Howlin’ Wolf Foundation, established by his stepdaughter, Bettye Kelly, is based not far from Chicago. Maybe surprisingly, he has even been acknowledged in more official circles by being on a US commemorative postage stamp in 1994.

There is nobody in rock/pop history with such a pedigree as Howlin’ Wolf, with links to the 1920s, being there in the early 1950s with Sam Phillips in the formative Sun years and right through to playing with supergroups in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the history of Rock who else could boast direct links to Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, Sam Phillips, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton?

Howlin’ Wolf was a great man.

 

The Howlin’ Wolf website

The life and times of Howlin’ Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf biography (iTunes)

For further reading on the great man, Cal recommends Moanin’ At Midnight: The Life And Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (ISBN 1560256834). The CD of the first two albums, Howlin’ Wolf/Moanin’ In The Moonlight, contains 7 tracks from this Toppermost selection.

TopperPost #177

4 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 25, 2014

    Masterly piece, Cal. As I’m always the one who mentions singles, let’s make a change and mention “The Rockin’ Chair Album” illustrated above. Like most blues albums, it’s really a compilation, but one issued in 1962 as “Howlin’ Wolf” with three of Cal’s four key 1960-61 selections. It has been called the “greatest single artist blues album” and it would be my desert island blues album. It’s one of Rolling Stone mags “500 Greatest Albums” and summed up by them as “an outrageous set of sex songs.”

    As originally issued with 12 tracks it was a compilation of 1959-61 singles and B-sides, ten credited to Willie Dixon (see Cal’s comments on two of them above). If you’re looking for it, look for the resissue mentioned above titled ‘Howlin’ Wolf / Moanin’ In The Moonlight’ on a 2-for-1, as copies called ‘The Rockin’ Chair Album’ date from the 70s and 80s and cost double. In the 70s and 80s the Chess catalogue in the UK and USA was bought and sold and shunted from pillar to post, while Vogue in France retained French rights and kept the albums in print in first rate quality. My vinyl copy is French early 70s as is the CD from 1986, which added twelve other great tracks, including Natchez’ Burnin’ and Tail Dragger (mentioned in the Link Wray Toppermost). Tracks 1-12 are the original album.

    One of the additions is Killin’ Floor, written by Howlin’ Wolf from 1964. While it wouldn’t be in my ten, it is one of the most covered, usually taken at breakneck speed. 300 Pounds of Joy is another one often covered.

    The French kept the Chess blues flame burning, and as to prophets not being known in their own country … I was in Chicago ten years ago, looking for a new Hubert Sumlin album in Virgin’s separate blues “room”. I asked and the white guy serving had never heard of him. He grabbed a young African-American co-worker and said ‘Who’s Hubert Sumlin?’ ‘Dunno,’ said the guy. I said, ‘He was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist.’ Both looked at me blankly. “Who’s Howlin’ Wolf?’ Remember, this is Chicago. Such expertise may be why Virgin record stores went out of business. Blues guitarists hold Hubert Sumlin in the highest possible esteem.

  2. Roger Woods
    Jan 25, 2014

    Great article. Great list. I checked on iTunes. It lists 261 Howlin’ Wolf albums. Not a bad total (although of course there are lots of duplicates, re-recordings and compilations) for someone who is now so little known. When I was learning to play guitar in the mid ’60s (and I’m now back in my own mid 60s) there were two riffs of Chester Burnett’s which mattered. The slide riff from Little Red Rooster covered by the Stones in ’64 and the riff for Smokestack Lightnin’. I could only afford the Rocking Chair EP but it gave me ‘Goin’ Down Slow’ – one of the all time great blues tracks which I’d not heard before. I’m off to listen to it.

  3. John Chamberlain
    Jan 25, 2014

    Excellent stuff, Cal. Most absorbing read.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Jul 5, 2017

    Fabulous, fabulous stuff Cal. You’ve managed to pack a lot of the key moments and people in the history of rock into one relatively short article whilst never losing sight of the main man, the mighty Wolf himself. Those names, Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, the oft criticised Ike Turner, Junior Parker, Sam Phillips and of course the Wolf himself seem to have achieved a near legendary status. On a more mundane note I too owned that Pye EP with Going Down Slow on it and it was one that got played to death. Because of my ownership of that plus other singles/EP’s I never actually bought the Rocking Chair LP, something I’ve never corrected but always regretted.

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