Reviewed on this page:
Moanin' In The Moonlight - More Real Folk Blues - Howlin' Wolf - The Real Folk Blues - The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions -
The Back Door Wolf
Born and raised in rural Mississippi, Chester Arthur Burnett (a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf) was a big, scary man with a big, scary voice: when he growls out "Who's Been Talkin'" or "I'm Leaving You" you may want to hide under the bed,
and even when he's having fun ("Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy") it's disturbing. But he's still easy to relate to because his pain is so evident, whether he's desperate, vengeful or temporarily in a good mood. Howlin' Wolf sang the blues in
clubs all over the South from the 30s to the early 50s, at which time he headed to Chicago and joined the talent-packed roster of Chess Records, home to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry,
Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley. Wolf soon hooked up with guitarist Hubert Sumlin and cut a string of singles that are just about the best electric blues ever recorded. In the chaotic late 60s
Wolf - along with the other blues legends - lost his audience, and he didn't last long enough to see the 80s blues revival: he died in 1976.
During his Chess peak, the studio band usually included Hubert Sumlin, lead guitar; Willie Dixon, bass.
Cadillac Daddy: Memphis Recordings 1952 (rec. 1952, rel. 1989)
Some of the many sides Wolf cut before he made the trip north. (DBW)
Moanin' In The Moonlight (1959)
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 Leavin' 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 easy must-have.
More Real Folk Blues (rec. 1953-1959, rel. 1967)
At the height of the electric blues craze, Chess foisted these long-shelved sides on a gullible public. The sidemen are poorly recorded, and the tunes are retitled alternate versions ("How Many More Years" surfaces as "You Gonna Wreck My Life"),
disorganized improvisations ("You Can't Be Beat," "Who Will Be Next?") or simply lackluster ("I'm The Wolf").
Make sure you don't pick this up unless you're already a fan - outside of a few belted goodies like "I Have A Little Girl," this disc contains next to no evidence of Wolf's abilities.
Musicians are mostly the same as on Moanin', though the personnel is unknown on a few tunes.
Howlin' Wolf (1962)
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.
The Real Folk Blues (1966)
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."
This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album (1969)
In a landmark of sneering record company condescension, Chess subtitled this collection of psychedelic remakes "He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either." I was hoping this would be an entertaining mess, but it's just a faceless electric blues band with way-out geetar (mostly by Pete Cosey, though Sumlin solos on "Back Door Man") and Wolf's unreconstructed vocalizing on top ("Spoonful"). There's flute (via Don Myrick) and electric sax on "Smokestack Lightning," but most of the other tracks have nothing special going on besides an unholy amount of wah-wah ("Little Red Rooster," which bizarrely borrows the descending hook from "Love Child").
Message To The Young (1971)
Second and last of Chess's attempts to sell Wolf to teens by pushing him out of his comfort zone. Seven of the eight tracks were written by Sonny Thompson (not that Sonny Thompson); Sumlin sat this one out.
The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (1971)
On the theory that the British were just plain cooler than Americans, Chess sent most of its artists to London to record with the rockers who idolized them (see Chuck Berry and
The core band is Eric Clapton and Sumlin, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman & Charlie Watts, with guest appearances from
Ringo Starr and Klaus Voorman ("I Ain't Superstitious"), John Simon (piano on "Who's Been Talking"),
Ian Stewart and Lafayette Leake. Clapton rarely rises to his peak, but even on cruise control he's worth hearing ("Rockin' Daddy"), and you might say the same about Wolf: he doesn't have the sheer force of his 50s sides, but he turns that
to his advantage, his tired, sad vocals bringing out the irony in "Sittin' On Top Of The World." Winwood mostly stays in the background except for an organ solo on "Who's Been Talking," and the wayward Stones are even less distinctive.
The material includes most of his biggest hits ("Do The Do," "Red Rooster") and a few of his overlooked numbers ("Poor Boy");
"What A Woman" is credited to James Oden though Wolf listed himself as author when he recorded the same tune as "I'm Leavin' You (Commit A Crime)."
Produced by Norman Dayron.
Live & Cookin' at Alice's Revisited (rec. 1972, rel. 1977)
Strangely for a live album recorded so late in an artist's career (Wolf was 62), almost all the songs here were new.
The Back Door Wolf (1974)
Wolf's last studio album, and his growl is still impressive though he rarely plays harmonica and doesn't even appear on the title tune, an instrumental.
Another batch of new songs, but Wolf wrote only two ("Moving," "Stop Using Me"); other tunes come from Oden ("Speak Now Woman"), Andrew McMahon ("Can't Stay Here"), Emory Williams ("You Turn Slick On Me"), and especially
saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who wrote five songs including the topical "Coon On The Moon" and "The Watergate Blues."
(Shaw's also credited with "Trying To Forget You," which is merely "Smokestack Lightning" with different lyrics).
The big problem is keyboardist Detroit Jr., who adds blues harpsichord to several tunes - while it could conceivably work as a featured instrument, it's too bizarre for the background, and singlededly ruins several cuts.
The rest of the band is solid and flexible: Willie Harris (guitar), McMahon or James Green (bass), Leary and Sumlin. The disc certainly has its moments, but the lackluster songwriting and failed experiments make it mostly a
How many more years will Wilson & Alroy keep writing these stupid reviews?