Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf/Moanin’ In The Moonlight (Chess ’59, ’62, ’86) Rating: A
This essential 2-for-1 set is a great place to start on the music of Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf. An imposing physical presence at well over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, Wolf’s roaring, otherworldly voice was a force of nature, and his visceral delivery on these classic songs mostly penned by the also-legendary Willie Dixon is almost frightening in its raw primal power. Always backed by a good tight band, the stinging leads of longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin and the deft piano touch of Otis Spann in particular are noteworthy, and much-covered songs such as “The Red Rooster,” (a.k.a. “Little Red Rooster”) “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful,” and “Back Door Man” are justifiably famous and influenced pretty much every heavy blues rock band of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, most notably The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and Captain Beefheart, whose vocals at times bear (speaking of which, Wolf’s voice has often been more likened to a grizzly bear than a wolf!) a striking resemblance to Wolf. The first 12 songs here comprise Howlin’ Wolf - also known as The Rocking Chair Album due to its album cover art - which was a compilation album originally released in 1962. Before that came the 1960 compilation album Moanin’ In The Moonlight, an almost as great collection of mostly self-composed tracks that included classics such as “How Many More Years,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Evil,” and “Forty Four.” I’m not going to get into song-by-song details, because variety wasn’t really Wolf’s strength and if you like the above-mentioned songs you should like the majority of the others as well. At 24 songs not everything here is first rate, but most of these “Chicago blues” tunes recorded for the legendary Chess label still sound great, as Howlin’ Wolf’s best stuff doesn’t sound dated like so many older acts do. In short, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was probably the pre-eminent electric blues musician of the pre-British Invasion era, and his legendary reputation rests largely on the two dozen tracks included here. For further exploration I’d advise continuing with The Real Folk Blues (1965), or you may want to forsake all three of these albums and instead splurge for the comprehensive 3-cd box set The Chess Box.

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (Deluxe Edition) (Chess ’70, '02) Rating: B+
One of the first "super sessions", this album saw the legendary blues singer Howlin' Wolf backed by an English band comprised of Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Steve Winwood (whose keyboard parts were actually added later in Chicago). The sessions were fraught with tension; read Bill Dahl's entertaining liner notes on the significantly expanded deluxe edition, which describes how the true star of this album, producer Norman Dayron, was able to make a go of it against all kinds of odds. For one thing, Wolf was nearing 60 and in poor health, so these are far from his most commanding performances (he's still one mean mofo, though). Secondly, the band were intimidated by the imposing and irritable Wolf (good thing Sumlin was there to put him more at ease and add some first rate rhythm guitar), and so it took some coaxing for them to really let loose. Fortunately, things eventually came together, in no small part due to Dayron (who bulked up the sound where necessary) and an interesting track selection that mixed together well-known songs ("I Ain't Superstitious," "Sittin' On Top Of The World," "The Red Rooster") with more obscure entries. Really, this is quite the period piece, which is not to imply that this album sounds dated (it doesn't) or that it isn't highly enjoyable today (it is). Rather, it's just an observation that this was a one time gathering at a specific time and place that would never be repeated, which makes the album special beyond its intensely played music. Really, given the participants involved (Klaus Voorman, Ringo Star, and John Simon are others who play on individual tracks), could this resulting album have been anything less than a stellar achievement? Well, yes, actually, as the rock landscape is littered with disappointing super sessions. This 'aint one of those, though, as the young British rockers cooked up enough unsinkable grooves that even Wolf, who was suspicious at first, wound up being suitably impressed. In fact, Wolf was mightily pleased with this album's results, and it became his best selling album ever.

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