Friday, February 6, 2015

Black History Month: Howlin Wolf

Ah Chess Records.   The best blues label ever, with the best music coming from Chess in the late 50s and early 60s.  Often imitated but never duplicated.  Chicago blues had a mystic all their own. Of course Leonard and Phil Chess never paid their artists very well but you can't deny they had a roster all their own.  For rock and roll there was Chuck Berry destined to outlive us all and the late great Bo Diddley, along with Elmore James who recorded very briefly with Chess the founders of heavy metal.  But the blues roster was special; Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson number 2, Lowell Fulson and John Lee Hooker. The Dells were still on neighbor label Vee Jay doing doo wop before moving to Chess/Cadet for some classic soul sides.  Etta James, the diva soul siren and the gritty Koko Taylor pure soul blues.  Most of the classic blues songs were written by Willie Dixon, who played acoustic bass and added backing vocal from time to time.  He may have been the least of the vocalists out there but he more than made it up with his hits like Back Door Man, Spoonful, You Shook Me and many many more.  Without his songs there wouldn't be a Cream or a Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones.

For the beloved Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson 2 (who kinda disappointed the british bands that idolized him.  Little Walter suffered from a bad liver and an bad attitude which got him into fights more often than not.  But for me my favorite bluesman was Chester Burnett aka The Howlin' Wolf, the legendary blues artist that originally recorded for Sam Phillips back in the early 50s before Chess picked up his contract and moved him up to the Windy City.  He was a towering figure, he could play the harmonica (Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy 2 teached him the harmonica from what I have read) and could play the guitar as well. His live performances were the stuff of legend, pounding on tables and imposing his 6 and half foot figure upon the world, delivering the songs in a growling bellow.  Wolf's Memphis sessions have been reissued and released on Flair/Virgin and Rounder.  With Willie Johnson playing mean and amplified guitar they are one of the true roots of the development of rock music. A couple of decent overviews can be found, Howlin Wolf Rides Again  I gather showcases the best of the Sun years (although you get three different mixes of Riding In The Moonlight which don't vary that much.  And Cadillac Daddy: Memphis Recordings 1952 (Rounder 1989)  with Willie Johnson on guitar and Willie Steele on drums, very primitive sounding but this lineup would also record Moanin At Midnight, which would surface on Howlin's first Chess album Moaning In The Moonlight which was actually a collection of Chess singles that came out in the 50s.

Moanin In The Moonlight is basically Howlin Wolf's Greatest Hits with the likes of future Viagra commercial spot Smokestack Lightning which The Yardbirds turned into a full blown Eric Clapton guitar showcase on their Five Live Yardbirds album years later.  I'm sure if Chester was still alive he would have object to a ED drug empire using his song but anyway, the early Chess sessions still feature Willie Johnson on guitar but later on the late great Hubert Sumlin would be the main guitarist adding counterpoint to Burnett's howl and growl. The Chess band that was used featured Otis Spann or Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Dixon played bass and the underrated Earl Phillips played drums, Phillips also figured on a lot of sessions from Vee Jay records and most notably Jimmy Reed. Outside of the Dixon penned Evil, the rest of the songs were written by Chester Burnett, and they showed a very dark side of things, even the recordings seem to ominous, the dark echo of I asked for water she gave me gasoline, to which Phillips drumming seem to invoke of a funeral procession.  Or Otis Spann, repetitive piano and the stop start beat to No Place To Go. Or the desperation of Somebody In My Home.  This is definite blues at it's best and most desperate too.

The other important album that Burnett did was 1962's S/T or Rocking Chair album.  With most of the recording from a May 1961 session featuring Sumlin on guitar, Sammy Lay on Drums, Dixon providing string bottom, and Johnny Jones on keyboard, the majority of songs are penned by Dixon but it has a feel like being in a sweaty crowded Chicago blues bar in summer.  A couple songs do date back to the 50s and features Willie Johnson and Earl Phillips (Who's Been Talking) but the songs included would be staples for the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds as well, Shake For Me, The Red Rooster, You'll Be Mine, Wang Dang Doodle, Spoonful, Back Door Man, Howlin' For My Baby.  The songs that would later captured the likes of John Hammond Jr to become a perfect Wolf tribute artist on his albums. And of course George Thorogood as well. In a nutshell, without these two albums, Moanin In The Moonlight and the Rockin Chair album  there would not be rock and roll.

Howlin Wolf actually recorded as a singles artist,  and the Chess Compilations like The Real Folk Blues, More Real Folk Blues and Change My Ways continue to hold up much better than the actual albums that he did do in the late 60s and early 70s.  The Real Folk Blues has Killing Floor (later the basis of Led Zeppelin's Lemon Song) Built For Comfort (Later done by UFO), Sitting On Top Of The World (later done by The Grateful Dead and Cream).  More Real Folk Blues unearths more of Wolf's 50s recordings, lesser known but anything featuring Mr Sumlin on guitar and Earl Phillips on drums is worth hearing, including You're Gonna Wreck My Life (originally No Place To Go and probably the same version and not a alternative take) and going back to a 1953 session which the guess might be Willie Johnson playing guitar on Just My Kind.  Change My Ways contains Do The Do and Hidden Charms as the highlights.  Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog, cleans out the vaults for vintage Wolf tracks from various years up to a 1968 solo acoustic recording of the title track and Ain't Going Down That Dirt Road.  However that 2 CD set has been out of print for a while and will cost a few bucks should you find it.  It's for fans only but again this overview does work better than the albums that Chess put out at the late 60s.

Of course trying to keep up to date with the trends Marshall Chess thought it would be a great idea to saddle classic Howling Wolf tracks with cheeseball hippie dippy psychedelia which became the infamous This Is The New Howling Wolf Album-He Doesn't Like It.  And with good reason.  It's unthinkable to give one of the most original voices in music history to torrid bad guitar work and gobs of reverb to make it sound like shit.  A Cadet Concept single of Evil is all you need to hear about why Wolf hated this album.  He didn't care much for Message To The Young either, pairing him up to the soul music crowd, with drab results. And Live And Cookin  was recording Howlin' Wolf on a off night and it pales to his legendary live performances when he was much younger and too band none exists. In the 2000's the obsolete BMG label put together a collection of live performances on their short lived When The Sun Goes Down Series and put it out on DVD. Somewhere in the collection is Wolf performing songs with a young Rolling Stones band watching him in awe. Worth searching for at the local DVD or music store.

While Chess screwed up on the This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album He Doesn't Like It, their next bright idea was to get some of Britain's best players to do  what is called The London Sessions and of course they vary; The Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry London Sessions are a farce, and the Muddy Waters one was good although they played it way too safe, the best of the bunch was on Howlin' Wolf Sessions with a all star lineup of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts being the rhythm section and some help from Herbert Sumlin and Lafayette Leake from the home town.  It also helps to know that Ian Stewart the keyboardist that is the silent Rolling Stone and Ringo Starr also appear on some tracks and despite Wolf's voice being somewhat tired and a bit more laid back, The London Sessions is a fun listen. Eric Clapton gets raked over the coals all the time but any session he has done with his blues idols be it B B King or Freddie King or Junior Wells/Buddy Guy and Wolf, he always played it true to form and he takes to the hills with Do The Do.  And anytime you get the Rolling Stones Rhythm Section holding the beat down on What A Woman! aka Commit A Crime, it shows the true meaning of Father leading his Sons down the blues road.  Muddy Waters must have been jealous.

Wolf was in poor health up to his passing in 1976 but before he did, he returned to Chess one more time for one more album, The Back Door Wolf.  By then most of his contemporaries  have either passed on or retire.  Still working with Herbert Sumlin and SP Leary on drums, the new blood featured Eddie Shaw who wrote the majority of songs, Andrew McMahon playing bass and Emery 'Detroit Jr' Williams playing piano and harpsichord (!).  The harpsichord a dated and dumb idea probably suggested by Ralph Bass who produced, but when Williams played electric or straight piano the songs were a bit more believable. The album most famous for Coon On The Moon which Wolf sang would happen some day.  Wolf's vocals which he kinda laid back on the London Sessions returns with full bellow on Speak Now Woman or Trying To Forget You.  The Back Door Wolf, may paled in comparison to the Rocking Chair album but for a final victory lap in the blues rock field, Chester Burnett did managed to end his recording career in style.  Cancer finally claimed him on January 10, 1976.
Out of all the bluesmen who recorded for Chess, Burnett was the most successful one financially.  He didn't gamble or drink away his money and for the most part lived a modest life.  His vocal style is influenced by the Charlie Patton who taught him how to play guitar and sing. And he found a perfect bandmate in Hubert Sumlin who was a big part of Wolf's music till the end.  In 1980 Burnett was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame and in 1991 The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. 

Suggested albums.

Cadillac Daddy-The Memphis Recordings (Rounder 1989)
Moanin' In The Moonlight/Howlin' Wolf (MCA reissue of Wolf's classic Chess Albums on CD 1986)
Howlin Wolf Rides Again (Flair/Virgin 1992)
The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues (Chess 2 on 1 CD 1996)
Change My Way (Chess 1991 reissue of his 1971 comp)
The Very Best Of Howlin' Wolf (Moanin'/Howlin Wolf is his best of but if you want a good overview start here)
Chicago Blue (Tomato's shoddy remastering of Chess songs but it has Commit A Crime)
Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog (scrapings of the barrel of Wolf's output but still a fine collection)
The London Sessions (where Wolf teaches his Kids how to play the blues)
The Back Door Wolf (His last recordings and shows him in fine form)
I'm The Wolf (A french import that is Back Door Wolf with a different song sequence and five bonus tracks from various singles-I bought this years ago at a Tower Records store and haven't seen a copy since then)

Not recommended and I suggest looking on You Tube before buying any of the albums, are Message To The Young and This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album He Doesn't Like It. And you can hear a disgruntled Wolf trying to keep it together through shitty arrangements and out of whack musicians.  Live And Cookin at Alice's Revisited is worth a listen to a later day Wolf live performance.  Even on a off night Wolf can still put together a good show.

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