All during Blues Bash Month my modest contributions have covered strictly contemporary blues artists. For this ninth and last piece for the month dedicated to the blues genre, I'm going to instead put forward a prominent member of blues royalty: Howlin' Wolf.
It's not hard to imagine that Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett (1910-1976), was a man who was better known and made a greater impact than the U.S. president he was named after. His influence is greater than any Chicago blues man save for friend and sometimes rival Muddy Waters and the homage to his music can be heard beyond the blues to the core of rock music itself. His commanding voice could range from blues yodeling to moaning to field hollering and often boomed like a shooting cannon. Wolf was by his own admission never a master musician, but he knew how to give listeners the true feeling of the blues.
Chess was his record company for almost his entire career, and through now-parent MCA, has released a box set of his better known works in 1991. There is also a nice shorter compilation of the hits called simply His Best.
But back in 1994, MCA Chess put out a 2 CD set, which the liner notes explains "presents the 1951-1969 studio highlights from Chess not previously issued on MCA/Chess". It was a collection of outtakes, unreleased tracks, and recordings otherwise uncovered by the box set. Released under the "Chess Collectibles" series, Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog had all the markings of a collection aimed only at the hard core Wolf fans.
On the contrary, this is an essential anthology of the genius of Howlin' Wolf's music.
The first third of the 42 tracks covers Wolf's pre-Chicago sessions in Memphis at the studio of Sam Phillips, who later discovered Elvis Presley and also oversaw the recording of the first rock 'n' roll tune, Ike Turner's "Rocket 88". Wolf's music was evidently already fully formed by this time. His signature howling-like singing and soulful harp playing is on display here, but there were other markers of the Howlin' Wolf sound; Willie Johnson's distinctive, over amplified guitar provided inspiration for rock bands some twelve to fifteen years later.
Additionally, some of the tunes, like the talking blues of "Look-A-Here Baby" and "Everybody's In The Mood" swing hard for being blues. Jazz boogie wasn't so uncommon in blues at that time; T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan rode that mix to great popularity. But Wolf pulls it off without losing any of his Delta influence. There were a few other uncommon touches here and there, like the use of horns in a small group setting ("Oh Red"), and even a drum solo on the track "Hold Your Money".
The next phase of Wolf's recording career, the first Chicago years from 1954 to 1959, are covered from "Come To Me Baby" to "My People's Gone". This was a transitory period for Wolf with much of the Memphis sound still intact, but Johnson's guitar being increasingly replaced by a maturing Humlin Sumlin and the overall sound becoming more refined. The use of reverb increases and puts a very effectively haunting effect in the "Moaning For My Baby" alternate "Midnight Blues".
The four tracks that follow "My People's Gone" are during Wolf's early sixties peak, with three of those tracks penned by the Cole Porter of the blues, Willie Dixon. While these tunes are less familiar than, say "Wang Dang Doodle" or "Spoonful", "Long Green Stuff" and "Mama's Baby" were Dixon's chaff that still exceeded most other blues composers' wheat. And it didn't matter anyway when Hubert Sumlin, a boy that Wolf took under his wing at just 14 years old in the late forties, had by then blossomed into one of the most formidable electric guitarists on the Chicago blues scene. His slinky lines on these and other Wolf sides have been copied and recycled endlessly over the decades, most notably by Robert Cray.
Even if the quality of material started to fall off a tad in the next five tracks representing the mid to late sixties, Sumlin's guitar combined with Wolf's still-potent vocals could be counted on to save the day, like on the otherwise humdrum "I Had A Dream". "The Big House" is almost a dead ringer for Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" until Hubert cuts loose with a Keith Richards sound-alike solo… except that it's been Keith who was imitating Hubert all along.
The last five tracks are 1968 recordings of Wolf alone with just an acoustic guitar stamping out the rhythm, with some casual talk about his musical roots mixed in. Since he had been performing as a musician at least part time since the early 30's but hadn't started recording until some twenty years later, this is a rare glimpse to what Wolf in his formative years might have sounded like. "Woke Up This Morning" is the best of this short batch, and here he displays the still-nimble acoustic guitar picking he learned first hand from such Delta luminaries as Charley Patton.
After making the decision to hype this record I found out that I was lucky to have found it at the record store some 10 years ago; it's currently out of print and only available as an import (or, of course, used). It's still very much a record to seek out for anyone wanting a solid bedrock in their blues record collection. You still want to start your Howlin' Wolf collection with the Chess box set, but Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog is the logical follow up acquisition. In the meantime, here are a cross section of tracks with which to whet your appetite:
Note: Linked tracks are low quality rips available for only about a week.Powered by Sidelines