Howlin’ Wolf – His Best (Chess Legendary Masters Series) – Classic Music Review

Howlin' Wolf

Having skipped my annual blues jag in 2021 due to the distractions surrounding the pandemic, I began to look forward to renewing that ritual in 2022 once I sensed that the nightmare was coming to an end. I looked at my list of blues artists awaiting a review and the choice was so painfully obvious that I had to berate myself for not covering him earlier.

“How in the fuck did I skip over Howlin’ Wolf?” I shouted to the empty room in a supreme act of self-beration.

I made up for it by immersing myself in his music for two weeks, reading the excellent biography Moanin’ at Midnight by James Segrest and Mark Holland and watching the documentary Howlin’ Wolf – The Secret History of Rock & Roll three times. I came away with several lasting impressions of the man born Chester Arthur Burnett:

  • Wolf never gave anything less than his best effort, in both the studio and in live performances, and expected the guys who played with him to adhere to the same high standards.
  • He responded to the emotional and financial deprivation of his childhood by assuming control of his life. He made courageous choices grounded in logic and common sense while refusing to become a victim of circumstances.
  • His life experience made him one tough son of a bitch and exceptionally sensitive to the suffering of others.
  • Functionally illiterate until his later years, Wolf was quite intelligent and insightful. In the early moments of the documentary mentioned above, he reveals a thorough understanding of the links between poverty, crime and social instability: “I’m gonna tell you what the blues is. When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues; when you ain’t got no money to pay the house rent you still got the blues. If you ain’t got no money you got the blues cause, you’re thinkin’ evil and anytime you’re thinkin’ evil you’re thinkin’ about the blues.”
  • Unlike most musicians, knew how to manage his money. He also helped his employees navigate the financial ups and downs of the music business by deducting unemployment and Social Security taxes from their paychecks.
  • This very large man was blessed with unusual fluidity and could shake his big ass with more flair than Jagger, Bowie or Michael Jackson.

The source of these impressions will become apparent as we go through the songs, for Wolf’s music was largely autobiographical. Though he only wrote or co-wrote nine of the songs in this twenty-song collection, Wolf had the ability to make any song his own by linking a tale to his extensive life experience and connecting with his deepest emotions, which in turn gave him the power to forge a strong connection with his audience. Sam Phillips experienced Wolf’s unusual gift when he first recorded Wolf back in 1951:

When Wolf sat down in that little old chair with his big feet sticking out and began to sing, this guy didn’t know anything was around him! I mean, he was singing to exactly the thing that we all want to make contact with—and that is the ears of the world. Maybe that’s one person; maybe it is everybody on the globe. But Wolf had nothing in mind but just to make sure that he conveyed everything that was in his mind, and in his heart, and in his soul when he opened his mouth to sing.… He was, boy, pouring out his soul, and you could just see it, in addition to feel it . . .

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (p. 146-147). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

There are many Howlin’ Wolf collections; I chose this one because of its exceptional sonic fidelity. Cub Koda of AllMusic described the master transfers as “absolutely stunning,” and they are—there are moments when I feel I’m right there in the room with Wolf as he howls and sweats through a song.

*****

The first two songs in the collection were recorded by Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Service, which would eventually morph into Sun Records. The rest of the collection was recorded in Chicago at Chess Studios.

“Moanin’ at Midnight” (Chester Burnett, 1951): I can’t think of another recording artist who launched their recording career in such dramatic fashion.

I visited the Delta several years ago. One image is seared into my memory. I was on the Arkansas side of the river and saw this shack about a hundred meters from the highway, greyed by the rain and heat, no bigger than an average master bedroom in a middle-class housing tract. The “window” was taped-together cellophane; the spaces between the slats were visible from a hundred yards away. The door was open and askew due to the rusted hinges; inside I could see a misshapen mattress on a makeshift platform of some kind. Outside was a woman with her five kids; no man in sight. It was obvious that the family all slept together on that deformed mattress, sweating together in the heat, huddling together in the cold. I noticed that the shack was hooked up to a sagging powerline and wondered if she cooked the family meals on a hot plate.

When I hear “Moanin’ at Midnight,” I see a woman in similar circumstances forty years before. She has finally put the kids to sleep and decides she’s earned some entertainment after another hard day. Maybe someone took pity on her and gave her a second-hand radio; maybe a girlfriend asked her to keep it for her while she hunted down her wayward man. The woman takes a load off her feet and sits in a rickety chair, then turns the dial to one of the West Memphis radio stations specializing in the blues.

What comes out of the tinny speaker is the eerie, chilling sound of the most mournful moan she’s ever heard in her life. The voice is deep and otherworldly—as if an evil spirit has captured the singer’s soul. A harsh guitar is heard, but the man continues to moan until suddenly his voice changes into a hoot owl’s cry that makes the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. A harmonica provides a few moments of relief, then the moaning man returns, singing in words that she can understand—but the words are hardly comforting:

Well, somebody knocking on my door
Well, somebody knocking on my door
Well, I’m so worried, don’t know where to go

Like so many women in horror films, her eyes are now fixed upon the dilapidated door that provides only a thin veneer of protection from the evil outside. Her spirit is awash in contradictory impulses: block the door/don’t block the door, go to the kids/leave them be, take a look outside/don’t you dare look outside. Her attention turns back to the music, but by this time the man is moanin’ and hootin’ again, and all she can do is jump on the bed and wrap her body around her children while praying for dawn to come quickly.

There’s never been a musical experience quite like “Moanin’ at Midnight.” I can’t even imagine how Wolf “composed” the song—it sounds like something that emerged spontaneously from his personal experience at the time. We are all subject to irrational fears and vague, nagging doubts that pull us into imagining worst-case scenarios—and when we try to describe what we’re feeling, we wind up spewing nonsense that no one can understand. Wolf gives us few words to work with, letting his vocalizations and tone express the dark side of the human experience with stunning authenticity.

The sound was like nothing ever heard before: three minutes of pure, surreal worry. Phillips said, “I can take one damn record like ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ and forget every damn thing else that the man ever cut and that is a classic thing that nobody can improve upon!”

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (pp. 140-141). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Amen.

“How Many More Years” (Chester Burnett, 1951): The liner notes credit “Ike Turner or Albert Williams” for the superb boogie-woogie piano that drives this song, but according to Segrest and Hoffman, Sam Phillips claimed he never recorded Ike Turner in his studio. We’ll thank Ike for connecting Sam with Wolf and give Albert credit for the 88s.

Guitarist Willie Johnson created more controversy by claiming wrote the song; in another interview, he gives the credit to Wolf. Conflicting stories are a part of every blues biography ever written, and all I can say is, “Whatever.” What Willie should have been trumpeting to anyone and everyone was his guitar work on “How Many More Years.” The distortion he coaxed out of that primitive amp was light years ahead of its time.

“How Many More Years” is essentially an upbeat number about a failed relationship. That may seem like a contradiction, but there are always mixed feelings about a romance that winds up in the dumper: there’s pain in the experience of failure and joy in making an affirmative choice to never have to spend another minute with that asshole again. Wolf adjusts his voice to sound like he’s got a boa constrictor getting cozy around his neck, imbuing it with extra grit that perfectly captures the intense stress we go through when the relationship is on the rocks (“I’d soon rather be dead/Sleeping six feet in the ground”). The up-tempo music celebrates both the recognition that the relationship is unsalvageable and the glorious moment of freedom (“If anybody ask about me/Just tell ’em I walked out the door”). Wolf’s cross-harp harmonica solos—in classic cross-harp blues mode, where the key of the harmonica is set to the fourth of the root chord—are absolutely divine, both rhythmically and musically.

“How Many More Years” is simply a great blues number, and it definitely had legs—Wolf performed it fourteen years later on Shindig! thanks in part to the influence of Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. What’s most remarkable about his performance is the side shot at the 4:22 mark when Wolf puts on an ass-shaking clinic for the ages a month before he turned fifty-five.

My man!

“Evil” (Willie Dixon, 1954): Born to a mother who was a religious fanatic, Wolf was pretty clear about the source of his moral code:

Throughout his life, Wolf viewed organized religion with deep skepticism. “No. I ain’t a religion man,” he said. “I just believe in right.”

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (p. 64). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The authors do note that Wolf prayed later in life—Wolf was smart enough to hedge his bets.

In this song, Wolf plays the role of Paul Revere, sounding a general alarm to his road warrior brothers who risk leaving their sexually active wives at home. Here Wolf shouts the opening lines of the song with the boa constrictor in place before easing down to putting-an-arm-around-his-buddy’s-shoulder mode to dispense some advice:

Well, a long way from home and
Can’t sleep at all
You know another mule is
Kickin’ in your stall

That’s evil
Evil is goin’ on wrong
I am warnin’ you, brother
You better watch your happy home

The most unusual aspect of the arrangement is Earl Phillips’ minimalistic approach on the drum kit, a steady stream of stop-time bursts that have an ominous feel to them, like the seconds ticking away on a personal doomsday clock. This gives Otis Spann on piano and the twin guitars of Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams a lot of maneuvering space—more like a jazz combo than a typical blues band.

One verse stands out for me, because six years down the road, Wolf is going to play the character whose capture was so essential to maintaining a happy home:

If you make it to your house
Knock on the front door
Run around to the back, you’ll catch him
Just before he go

To be continued . . .

“Forty-Four” (Chester Burnett, 1954): One of my two quibbles with the collection is that I think the compilers should have chosen the A-side of the single, “I’ll Be Around” instead of “Forty-Four.” While I’ll admit that part of it is due to my complete aversion to firearms, there are few songs that capture Wolf’s off-the-charts intensity as well as “I’ll Be Around.” Wolf is in peak howl mode on that one.

Compared to “I’ll Be Around,” “Forty-Four” seems to drag a bit. Wolf gives it his all but I don’t think the backing band comes close to matching his intensity.

“Smokestack Lightnin'” (Chester Burnett, 1956): This one is personal.

As was true of so many children who toiled on Delta plantations for very little in return, childhood was no laughing matter. Young Chester Burnett faced additional challenges due to parental abandonment. His father had left that poor excuse for a mother and moved to Arkansas (they would reconnect years later). While Wolf credits his mother for introducing him to music (through the church, of course), she threw her son out of the house shortly after his father split. Chester “walked many miles across frozen ground with burlap ‘croker’ sacks tied around his bare feet before he reached the home of his great-uncle Will Young, his father’s mother’s brother.” (ibid)

Leaving a fanatical Christian mother for an equally fanatical Christian relative wasn’t the best choice Wolf would make in his life but as a poor kid with few skills and no education, it wasn’t like he had lots of options. “Young was especially hard on Chester, beyond the already brutal conditions for farmers in the area. He humiliated the boy by making him sit apart from the other children during meals.” (ibid)

The end came when Wolf unintentionally killed a prized (and expensive) pig his great uncle had recently purchased:

My dad is sittin’ at the breakfast table. It’s Sunday morning. He cleared up his throat and said, “Hurry up and come in here. I’m going to whip you.”

Chester took off running toward the railroad tracks a few hundred feet away. Young, seeing him flee, mounted a mule and chased after him. “Yeah, Lordy!” Leroy said. “Will Young, Lord, that man whupped that boy, runnin’ behind him with a mule, whuppin’ his ass with a bullwhip!” Chester outran Young and hid out in the woods overnight. The next day, he sneaked back into the hamlet, borrowed some old pants and shoes from his friend Jimmie, and then “hoboed” away—hopped aboard a train as it rolled down the tracks.”

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (p. 30). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Nice try, Yardbirds, but it’s impossible for anyone other than Howlin’ Wolf to do this song justice. The train had special meaning for Wolf—it was his means of escape from a hellish existence that no human being should have to endure, a vehicle that gave him a fighting chance to build a meaningful life.

Wolf had performed this song live as far back as the 1930s, riffing off a Charley Patton tune called “Moon Going Down”. Prior to the take that appears in this collection, he recorded the song under a different title (“Crying at Daybreak”) for the RPM label in the early 50s.

For “Smokestack Lightning” the supporting band had one and only one mission—to provide a steady rhythmic foundation so Wolf had the freedom to vary his phrasing based on what he was feeling at the moment. Sometimes he’s ahead of the rhythm, sometimes behind; his delivery is anything but smooth, marked by frequent pauses and bursts of intensity—but he always manages to reconnect with the baseline rhythm on the “A-whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo, whoo” that serves as a chorus. There are no chord changes whatsoever; the song is in the key of E major (often mistaken for E minor in the chord patterns available in cyberspace due to misunderstanding the blues scale). The combination of a steady rhythm and a static chord forces the listener to focus on the only variable feature in the arrangement—Wolf’s vocal. Though Wolf always grabs our attention when he’s singing, the emotional intensity he brings to this recording, magnified by the sparse arrangement, makes “Smokestack Lightning” one of the truly great vocal performances in recorded music history.

I always get choked up when Wolf sings this verse . . .

Whoa-oh, stop your train
Let a poor boy ride
Why don’t you hear me cryin’?
Whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo, whoo

But in this most recent Wolf binge, I was struck by the verse that follows:

Whoa-oh, fare-you-well
Never see (a) you no more
Why don’t you hear me cryin’?
Whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo, whoo

Whether he’s saying farewell to his community or someone specific in that community, what I hear is a reproach to the people around him who knew about the hell he was going through and did nothing to help him—the sad plea of a human being who simply wanted to be treated with dignity.

“I Asked for Water” (Chester Burnett, 1956): Wolf based this composition on an old blues number by delta blues artist Tommy Johnson called “Cool Drink of Water Blues” Tommy’s fame rested largely on his guitar histrionics and a yodel-like falsetto that influenced the vocal styles of several southern artists, including Hank Williams and Howlin’ Wolf.

Both songs open with virtually the same line—“I asked her for water/she brought me gasoline”—but while Tommy moves on from the woman and into the train station, Wolf pretty much focuses his effort on the gal in question—“the troublingest woman that I ever seen.” Wolf’s adoption of Tommy’s sudden falsetto leaps almost makes this a tribute song, but the grit and power Wolf brings to the table tells me he’s thinking about a specific experience he had with an untameable shrew.

“Who’s Been Talkin'” (Chester Burnett, 1957): This minor blues number bears a clear similarity to an earlier minor hit of Wolf’s called “Going Back Home.” That song featured a rumba-like beat and prominent guitar; “Who’s Been Talkin'” is more mellow and Wolf’s harmonica serves as the lead instrument.

Before I get into the song, I want to thank Segrest and Hoffman for clearing up a mystery that bugged me for years—it’s clear that there is a horn-like counterpoint to Wolf’s harp, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out which horn it was. It wasn’t sweet enough to be a clarinet nor brash enough to be a cornet—but there was no way in hell it was the tenor sax referenced in the Chess liner notes. In the middle of their review of the song, Segrest and Hoffman gave me the “aha” moment I’d been longing for: “a bravura performance by Wolf on vocal and harp, plus an odd horn line on melodica by Billy Duncan.”

Since I own a melodica as a way of keeping my fingers keyboard-fresh on road trips, I was both relieved and embarrassed by this discovery. Sigh. Another blonde moment.

Wolf is definitely in grieving mode in this song, his assertive voice marked by fear of loss and anxiety bordering on panic as he relives the experience of his baby catching a train, armed with a ticket “long as her right arm,” which tells him it’s going to be a long trip with several stops along the way. Though he starts off clinging to the belief that “she doin’ me wrong,” the realization of loss finally hits him (“Well, you is my baby, I hate to lose”). In the end, he makes a painful self-discovery: “I’m the causin’ of it all.” He repeats that line five more times, his voice becoming weaker as the guilt seeps into his soul. Great performance, great song—and the more I listen to Earl Phillips on the kit, the more I admire his sensitivity to the emotional aspects of a song.

“Sitting on Top of the World” (Chester Burnett via the Mississippi Sheiks, 1957): In the process of listening to various songs I’m considering for my song series, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that great songs fall into two distinct categories: songs that belong to a particular artist and only that artist, and songs that lend themselves to a wide variety of interpretations.

“Sitting on Top of the World (or “Sittin'”) falls into category B. The original by the Mississippi Sheiks is almost dirge-like with its mournful fiddle, spiced a bit by truncated measures in the verses. Doc Watson’s version is as “clean as country water” (thank you, John Sebastian); Cream’s take is a slow burn. Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition is a melding of opposites—Wolf captures the sad irony of the lyrics better than anyone, but his band takes the contrary approach we heard in “How Many Years,” creating an exuberant and damn sexy background that captures the upside of life’s unexpected changes.

The band is definitely on fire for this one. Earl Williams lays the groundwork with snare thumps on the backbeat combined with double-time hits in the transition, a comfortable rhythmic structure that allows the young bucks in the band—Hosea Lee Kennard on piano and Hubert Sumlin on guitar—plenty of room to play. If you’re ever looking for a reason why we say play music, just take a moment to take in Hosea’s frisky piano trills and Hubert’s johnny-on-the-spot rhythmic fills. It sounds like those guys are having an absolute gas.

Wolf lets the boys have their fun while he sings about his lost love and his shit job in a tone combining world-weariness with grudging acceptance. It’s not uncommon that the end of a relationship results in reconsideration of what the hell we want to do with our lives, and Wolf decides it’s time to leave one life behind and head out in search of another:

Worked all the summer, worked all the fall
Had to take Christmas, in my overall
But now she gone and I don’t worry
Sitting on top of the world

Going down to the freight yard, just to meet a freight train
I’m gonna leave this town, work done got hard
But now she gone and I don’t worry
Sitting on top of the world

Obviously the “You know I work all day/To get you money to buy you things” routine didn’t pan out and it’s time to move the fuck on. What makes Wolf’s take on the song the “definitive version” is that he actually dirtied those overalls while working the fields and escaped from holy hell courtesy of a freight train. Early in The Howlin’ Wolf Story, Wolf introduces his thoughts on the blues by saying, “We’re talkin’ about the lives of human beings—how they live.” While he often shares his personal life experience in his songs, he knew deep in his soul that there were people out there who had similar experiences and longed to hear someone who could empathize with their plight. Wolf had the gift of transforming the personal into the universal, and “Sittin’ On Top of the World” is one of the best examples of that rare talent.

“Howlin’ for My Darling” (Burnett-Dixon, 1959): Wolf loved women and women loved Wolf. No, Wolf did not have seven wives (another failure at Songfacts), only two (legally), and there is zero evidence that Wolf ever physically abused a woman. He did fight with men (he had a real knockdown-drag out with Albert King) but this was during the years when boxing was nearly as popular as baseball and a sock in the jaw between guys was no big deal.

Segrest and Hoffman refer to “Howlin’ for My Darling” as “a strutting, joyous celebration of love and lust,” and note that while Wolf and Willie Dixon received writing credits, the song was shaped by Leonard Chess in the booth. New drummer S. P. Leary wasn’t playing what Leonard had in mind—a rhythm that emphasized the backbeat as in classic rock ‘n’ roll. It took a few takes for Leonard to get the band and Wolf in sync, but eventually the boys started to rock with genuine enthusiasm.

With Leary driving the beat and Sumlin adding some pretty slick fills, Wolf shares the obvious delight he feels when humping his “. . . hot like red pepper/Sweet as cherry wine” love interest. I mean, what man in the world wouldn’t feel delighted to bed a woman whose first thought in the morning is to ride a morning glory?

Every time she kiss me
She make the lights go out
Up early in the morning
She make me jump and shout
This mad love she got
Make me laugh and cry
Makes me really know
I’m too young to die
If you hear me howlin’
Callin’ on my darlin’
Ooh hoo, hoo hooee

I’ll bet Wolf was savoring a particularly memorable orgasm on that last line and feeling the tingle in his testicles.

“Wang Dang Doodle” (Willie Dixon, 1960): This is my second quibble—Howlin’ Wolf simply wasn’t right for this song (according to Segrest and Hoffman, “Wolf hated the song”). I could sense that right from the get-go—yeah, he’s howlin’ but his heart ain’t in the howlin’. All you have to do is compare Wolf’s take with Koko Taylor’s hit version to realize that she was feeling it and Wolf really wasn’t.

“Back Door Man” (Willie Dixon, 1960): Semantics evolve in every language, and the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s transformed several naughty words into more-or-less acceptable language while adding new spins on old words and phrases. Ask anyone born in the last forty years to define the meaning of “back door man” and a majority will answer “a back door man is a guy who likes to ram it up a woman’s ass.”

There’s no evidence on file to indicate that Wolf was that kind of back door man.

The original meaning of “back door man” was “a guy who slips it to wives while the hubby is away, then sneaks out the back door so the neighbors won’t tattle on the wife.” Though Wolf describes such behavior as “evil” in the song of the same name, he assumes the role with noticeable relish in “Back Door Man.” As it turns out, he did serve as a back door man in his youth, but I’m pretty sure his second wife Lillie (the true love of his life) would not have tolerated such behavior (and I think Wolf had grown up by this time, so Lillie never had to worry).

Though he resented having to do so many Dixon songs instead of some of his own creations, Wolf was a professional who always tried to give it his all. He does a fabulous job capturing the cuckolder’s braggadocio, expressing pride in his conquests and extensive client list:

They take me to the doctor
Shot full of holes
Nurse cried, “Please save his soul.”
Accused for murder—first degree
Judge wife cried, “Let the man go free.”

I am a back door man
I am Back Door Man
Well the men don’t know but the little girls understand

I think Willie Dixon may have borrowed the part about interference in the judicial process from Chess stablemate Chuck Berry and I’m stunned that Chuck didn’t sue him.

And speaking of semantic shifts, let’s consider the meaning of “eating chicken.”

Stand out there
Cop’s wife cried, don’t take him down
Rather be dead, six feets in the ground
When you come home you can eat pork and beansI
I eats mo’ chicken, any man seen

Back in the day, fresh chicken was a treat for poor folk in the south who generally subsisted on a diet of canned goods and unwanted produce from the farms. Apparently “eating chicken” was also a euphemism for oral sex performed on a female. Here are the latest updates on “eating chicken”:

  • Urban Dictionary: “gobbling cock”
  • Definder.net: “code for watching child pornography” (yuck)

I’m pretty sure Jim Morrison was the guy who initiated the semantic shift from slipping out the back door to slipping in the back door—and though I do like it in the ass from time to time, my fondness of that particular act in no way influences my belief that Morrison did one of the best Howlin’ Wolf covers ever.

“Spoonful”: (Willie Dixon, 1960) This composition is very loosely based on Charlie Patton’s “A Spoonful Blues.” The most noticeable feature of the original is Charlie’s substitution of a recurring guitar figure for the word “spoonful,” perhaps a wink-wink to the crowd who knew he was talking about cocaine. Dixon and Wolf would pay a tribute to the Father of Delta Blues by employing that substitution frequently throughout the song (Charlie never uttered the word in the original).

Wolf met Charlie when he was a kid sweating through another day on the plantation and convinced the Father of Delta Blues (and a great guitarist) to teach him a few chords. Wolf was absolutely mesmerized by the man:

Fascinated by Patton, Chester listened to him nightly at a nearby juke joint and tried to play along as Patton roared out his music. One night Patton heard the young man plinking away outside. He marched out, grabbed Chester, and said, “Come on up here and play with me, son!”

It was a life-changing event for the young man. Playing guitar did not come easily to Chester, whose huge and powerful hands and fingers—ideal for farming—made it hard for him to play a string instrument with subtlety. But Patton’s rhythmic style was perfect for the aspiring young bluesman, who relied on guitar mostly to accompany his startling voice.

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (pp. 40-41). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

No, Wolf was never a great guitar player, though he did coax a passable slide out of those huge fingers. The great guitar player in the studio for this track was Hubert Sumlin, who should have shared equal billing with Wolf with his spot-on counterpoint, incredibly precise picking and marvelous finger slides down the fretboard. This is my favorite Wolf-Sumlin pairing of all . . . it sounds like they’re having a fascinating musical conversation that engages both men to the fullest.

“Shake for Me”:(Willie Dixon, 1961): Dance crazes were all the rage in the early 60s, with Chubby Checker shoving Hank Ballard to the side and leading the way with “The Twist.” In early 1961, Chubby absconded another song (this time from the Goodtimers) and again hit the top of the charts with “Pony Time.” I don’t know exactly what Willie Dixon was thinking when he wrote “Shake for Me,” but I hope it was something like, “You call that shit a dance song? I’ll show you a real dance song!”

The band wastes no time getting down to business with all parties present and accounted for during the seven-second intro. Wolf enters the fray at full strength to politely but firmly decline the offerings of a good-looking broad in favor of a woman who knows where the action is:

Sure look good
But it don’t mean a thing to me
Sure look good
But it don’t mean a thing to me
I got a hip-shaking woman
Shake like a willow tree

Apparently, Wolf (and/or Dixon) likes them on the meaty side: “Every time she stops/Her flesh it shake like jello.” Given Wolf’s fabulous ass-shaking talents, it’s likely he wants a woman who can keep up with his beyond-assertive rhythms. The heat doesn’t let up a bit when Wolf steps aside to give Hubert his turn in the spotlight, delivering a hot solo in a style that would later earn the name “chicken-pickin'” thanks to Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band.

Great dance number . . . but I could really do without the cowbell. I hate that fucking sound.

“The Red Rooster” (Willie Dixon, 1961): Once again Dixon plumbs Charlie Patton’s discography and adds a touch of Cliff Carlisle to pen a song about the utter chaos that ensues when the women are hot and horny and the guy can’t get it up.

A comparison of Wolf’s version to those of Mick Jagger and Sam Cooke leads to the undeniable conclusion that Wolf’s take is by far the most powerful and authentic. Think about it, guys—when you can’t get it up, how do you feel? “Sad” doesn’t begin to describe it, which is pretty much all Mick gives us in his take. And while Sam Cooke sings it well (as always), his interpretation is too smooth—and the last thing a guy with a limp dick feels is “smooth.” Beset with anxiety, shrouded in doubt, there’s only one word that can describe a guy’s feelings when the little red rooster is “too lazy to crow for days.”

The word is forlorn—and nobody can do forlorn as well as Howlin’ Wolf. His vocal on “The Red Rooster” expresses feelings of helplessness, uncertainty, failure . . . utter forlornness. Those are the feelings too many guys try to hide when they can’t express themselves sexually. Wolf holds nothing back, but he also doesn’t overplay his hand and try to wring sympathy from the listener. He’s just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing I admire most about Wolf is his emotional honesty and his willingness to share those emotions with his audience. Wolf did some bad things in his life and made his fair share of mistakes, but remarkably, he owned up to them. He also rightly sensed that he wasn’t the only person in the world who had fucked up a few times and he had the guts to share those experiences to let his listeners know that he understood exactly what they were feeling. The first step in any form of recovery is to admit you have a problem, and by admitting his, Wolf no doubt helped a lot of people move on from their despair.

The blues has always been the place where an artist can share the darker emotions and the not-for-polite-company problems people face every day. It’s a place where you can let it all go—which is why I started my annual blues jag. Wolf understood that as well as any bluesman—the blues was the essence of his identity.

“I Ain’t Superstitious” (Willie Dixon, 1961)I have to disagree with Segrest and Hoffman on this one, as I wouldn’t describe the lyrics as “full of fear and mojo.” I think the fact that Dixon’s lyrics have Wolf claiming “I ain’t superstitious” before proceeding to describe all kinds of paranoid fantasies tells me that this is more about the silliness of superstition and the all-too-human tendency to exaggerate danger than a journey into the darkness. “Hey, man, you just said you ain’t superstitious—then what’s all this shit about black cats and dogs howlin’?” I’ll admit that I could be influenced by the flood of silly conspiracy theories in play during this weird era in human history, but on the flip side, those nutcake theories may just prove my point: humans are a fearful species subject to inventing all kinds of gloomy possibilities.

Allow me to thank my lucky stars for Birds Aren’t Real.

What knocks me out about this song is Hubert Sumlin’s guitar. Wolf’s longtime protégé is at the top of his game here with his sinuous fills and an oh-so-sweet tone.

“Goin’ Down Slow” (James B. Oden, 1961): This cover of Jimmy Oden’s classic blues number features Willie Dixon on the spoken narrative parts and Wolf singing the verses. Those verses form an eerie premonition of Wolf’s final years. His health began to decline when he suffered a heart attack on the way to a show in 1969; soon his kidneys began to fail, a condition possibly aggravated in a car accident. Wolf had several heart attacks over the next few years while undergoing dialysis—and adamantly refused to follow his doctor’s advice to stop recording and performing.

Yes, Wolf was one tough son of a bitch.

Wolf gets only two verses in the song, but he makes the most of the opportunity and then some. The basic story involves a man reflecting on his life and times while suffering from an unnamed but likely fatal illness—he’s “goin’ down slow.” Wolf’s first verse follows Dixon’s narrative recollection of the good times: “Man, you know I done enjoyed things that kings and queens will never have . . . ”

I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin’ on
Oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow

Wolf emphasizes the word “slow” with extended pronunciation (s-s-s-l-o-w), his voice fading slightly to emphasize his character’s physical decline. Dixon’s second narrative piece involves money, specifically riches spent, not saved. He takes pride in the fact that “if I had kept all of the money I had already spent, I would’ve been a millionaire a long time ago,” a “no regrets” statement that the fun he had with that money was worth every dime.

Wolf then reassumes the role of the lead character and the lightness of the narrative disappears without a trace as he faces the awful truth that he is going to die:

Please write my mama
Tell her the shape I’m in
Please write old mother
Tell her the shape I’m in
Tell her pray for me
Forgive me for my sins

The verse takes on greater poignancy when you consider Wolf’s relationship with his mother and how it ended. Wolf and his mother had been estranged for years; his mother refused to have anything to do with him because he played “the devil’s music.” In the early 70s, Wolf was on tour down south, and after a show in Baton Rouge, he and Hubert headed to Mississippi. After another show outside of Clarksdale, Wolf and Hubert spent the night at the Riverside Hotel, close to his old stomping grounds:

At the café, a policeman approached Wolf and said he’d seen him at the VFW show—and knew someone who knew his mother. Wolf was stunned. He hadn’t seen Gertrude Burnett in years. The cop told him to go down to the Big Six barbershop on Issaquena Avenue and talk to barber and bluesman Wade Walton. At the barbershop, Wolf announced, “I’m the Wolf,” and Walton said, “Yeah, I know.” “Do you know where my mama is?” Walton said he’d just seen her—said she lived nearby above Mr. Lee’s restaurant, where she’d recently been robbed of most of her meager worldly possessions. “If you wait a few minutes, she’ll probably be by here,” Walton said. Wolf sat in a barber chair and, uncharacteristically, fidgeted. After Walton finished cutting a man’s hair, he took Wolf and Hubert out the back door to Issaquena, where they waited. “There your mama is—right there,” Walton said, pointing at a short, stout woman, walking toward them, dressed in black. Wolf ran to her and yelled, “Mama!” He lifted her into the air, set her back on the ground, kissed her on both cheeks, and hugged her. He was crying. He reached into his pocket, and while hugging her balled something up and slipped it into a pocket on her smock.

Mother and son talked for fifteen minutes. Then she felt something in her smock. “Turn me loose!” she said, pushing him away. She fished it out of her smock, looked at it, spat on it, and threw it down and stomped on it. “I told you I don’t want your dirty old money!” she yelled. “You play them dirty blues!” She started to walk away, then turned and screamed, “Dirty!” Wolf sobbed as she walked away. Hubert ran up to comfort him and noticed something in the dirt. “Lord, have mercy!” he said as he picked up and brushed off a five-hundred-dollar bill. He’d never seen one before. Wolf sent Eddie Shaw to beg his mother to come back, but she refused. She wouldn’t have anything to do with his devil’s music.

“Wolf cried all the way to Memphis,” Hubert said. “When we got to Memphis, we managed to get him quieted down. He said, ‘Hubert, you see what I’m talking about?’ I say, ‘Wolf, that’s sure your mama?’ He say, ‘Yeah. I love her, but she put me out on account of I wouldn’t work for 15 cents a day, ’cause I was sittin’ around trying to play this guitar. Told me, ‘Don’t come back. I don’t want you back here.’

Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark. Moanin’ at Midnight (p. 414-415). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When Wolf was on his deathbed, he asked his wife Lillie to try to get his mother on the phone. She refused to speak with her son. Though recorded about fifteen years before his death, Wolf’s aching desire to reconnect with the mother who abandoned him was painfully real, and that pain is hauntingly clear in his voice in that verse.

I’ll note that Eric Clapton was absolutely stunned by Hubert’s guitar work on “Goin’ Down Slow,” a bend-filled display of technical prowess and sensitivity to the subject matter.

I still can’t get over the mother.

“Three Hundred Pounds of Joy” (Willie Dixon, 1961): It’s really time for something light. Ya think?

All blues guys like to brag about what studs they are, but there’s a playfulness about Wolf’s proclamations of his sexual prowess that’s kind of . . . sweet.

Well, all you girls think the days are gone
You don’t have to worry, you can have your fun
Take me, baby, for your little boy
You get three hundred pounds of heavenly joy
This is it
This is it
Look what you get

And I say, “Hold it right there, big boy—the only way that’s gonna happen is if I’m on top!” I’m sure Wolf would have agreed to my request—he was a consummate gentleman with the ladies.

This is as close to The Coasters as Wolf would ever get (thank heaven), but it’s nice to hear him having some fun. The song also represents a sonic shift with the addition of tenor and baritone sax. He’d worked with a solo sax player on “Howlin’ for My Darling,” but the combination of two horns on the lower side of the saxophone range adds a distinctive beefiness to the arrangement. The two saxes are present in the last three songs, with mixed results.

“Hidden Charms” (Willie Dixon, 1963)The mixed result here is that the saxes are too damned loud during the verse, squeezing both Wolf and Hubert into tinier spaces. The problem is corrected when Wolf yells “Get it!” and Hubert steps up for a tour-de-force extended solo where he flies over the fretboard with amazing speed and grace and somehow manages to wrap it up on the right chord at the right time—the musical equivalent of a gymnast sticking it at the finish of a 10.0 performance. The song is a bit on the poppy side, but Wolf’s still having a good time and it sounds like Hubert is having the time of his life.

“Built for Comfort” (Willie Dixon, 1963): It looks like Chess felt the need for a focused advertising campaign centered around Wolf’s manliness, as “Built for Comfort” was packaged with “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy” in what could be the most testosterone-loaded single of all time. Here Wolf eschews the get-it-in-get-your-rocks-off-get-it-out method in favor of the go-slow approach to love-making of the true connoisseur:

Some folk rip and roar, some folk b’lieve in signs
But if you want me, baby, you got to take your time
Because I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed
But I got everything all the good girls need

Given Wolf’s sense of integrity, I’d wager that he was like Maxwell House coffee—good to the last drop.

Living up to its title, the song has a nice, comfortable flow with the horns in relative abeyance and Hubert showing his mastery of mellow. Buddy Guy takes a turn at the bass and does a nice job of strengthening the laid-back rhythm Sam Lay establishes on the drums.

“Killing Floor” (Chester Burnett, 1964): There are two dominant interpretations of this song, both centered around the “blame it on the broad” theme common in popular music. The first involves the common usage of the phrase “killing floor”—the place in the slaughterhouse where men hack up the animals for food. Looking at the lyrics through that lens tells us that the narrator took a job in one of the Chicago slaughterhouses to “bring home the bacon” (pun intended) to a nagging partner.

The alternative take involves an incident when Wolf was a young man and had a fling with a woman. The woman’s boyfriend found out about it and beat the shit out of her. Wolf found out about the beating, located the abuser and chopped his head off with a cotton hoe (it’s unclear whether or not Wolf did any time). If this is the case, Wolf is blaming both himself and the woman when he sings, “I shoulda quit you, a long time ago.” This take implies that he didn’t know about the boyfriend, so the broad was bad news from the get-go—and that he should have picked up on that.

I think Segrest and Hoffman got it right—both interpretations apply. Wolf may have written the song about life in the slaughterhouse—after all, he was living in Chicago, “the hog butcher for the world,” and must have heard stories about the killing floor—but there was no way he could sing about a killing floor without thinking about his own experience with killing.

If it weren’t for the subject matter, “Killing Floor” would make for one hell of a dance number with its uptempo beat and undeniable swing, but even the most rabid carnivore would have a hard time dancing to a song about butchering animals. It’s best to just sit back and appreciate one of Wolf’s strongest vocals, Buddy Guy’s assertive bass and Hubert’s ripping guitar work.

A few years after Wolf recorded the song, “killing floor” took on a whole different meaning when the Electric Flag prefaced their rendition with an excerpt from a Lyndon Johnson speech. The killing floor became a euphemism for the slaughterhouse known as Vietnam.

Great songs have innate flexibility.

*****

When I listen to great albums like this one, I can’t help thinking, “What the hell is the matter with people today?” Popular music in our time is largely synthetic crap performed by wannabe divas of all sexes or egomaniacs with “attitude” seeking money and fame. The other day I asked Siri to play “music that’s popular today” and after about twenty minutes I wanted to throw up. I probably could have asked Siri to play “songs that make great ringtones” and come up with the same crapola.

I deeply resent the people who have denigrated music and turned it into a highly profitable, mass-produced and mass-marketed commodity, shutting out the real musicians out there who still honor music as a sacred art form.

It was a sincere pleasure to listen to a true artist like Howlin’ Wolf, who reminded me what authenticity sounds like.

7 responses

  1. Oh, Howlin’ Wolf! There’s so much there and you brought it to us.

    The Wolf meets his mother story as told by Sumlin — Faulkner, Sophocles, whoever, stand back, that’s one for the ages.

    Some trivia not in your post:

    I didn’t know until this month that the piano player in the presented by the Rolling Stones Shindig TV clip is……Billy Preston

    Howlin’ Wolf, that man who made spoken language his mastered instrument was functionally illiterate as a middle-aged adult. He took night school classes to change that. Can you imagine being his teacher? It’d be like teaching Homer to read and write.

    I’ll differ on this: unlike you, I much prefer 44 to the more poorly recorded flip side, The Blues gun-caliber song trope was a broad one, but I always sensed Wolf’s character in the song thought the gun was demonically possessing him, a fairly rare take on that sort of thing in the Blues or elsewhere. I once tried to mesh portions of that song with ol’ Hog Butcher to the World Carl Sandburg’s anti-war poem:

    http://traffic.libsyn.com/parlando/Long_Guns.mp3

    Which may prove that even if you want to give the world more Howlin’ Wolf, it’s hard to do.

    Anyway, glad to see you back listening and telling us what you hear and feel about music.

  2. Fantastic review that reveals the essence of the man. I believe that Sam Phillips described the Wolf as the most exciting performer he ever saw. Imagine a world where Elvis and the Wolf swap places.

  3. I’m pretty sure the name of the co-author of that Howlin’ Wolf biography you mentioned (“Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf”) is Mark Hoffman, not Mark Holland, as you had it.

    1. I have no idea how that happened but will correct immediately!

      1. Well, I did get 13 out of 14 mentions right!

  4. Just got around to reading this review, but it’s one of your very best. I’ve always loved this album, but I now know a lot more of the story behind it. Amen to your comments at the end — I simply can’t imagine anyone making music like this anymore.

  5. This is a great review of a great artist. Even I learned something from it, and I literally wrote the book on Howlin’ Wolf!

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