Chester Burnett was better known as Howlin’ Wolf, a nickname he acquired early in life. A physically imposing man at 6 feet 6 inches and close to 300 pounds, he was legendary for his compelling and intimidating stage performances. After tutelage under Delta blues artist Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf’s big break came when he was “discovered” by Sam Phillips, the owner and operator of Sun Records. Like many Delta blues musicians, Burnett moved north to Chicago in 1953, with the great migration of black people moving north to find good paying jobs and better living conditions. He soon signed with Chess Records, and began a fruitful relationship that yielded many well-known electric blues standards. In particular, Howlin’ Wolf’s music was very influential on young British musicians, and a precursor to the great British blues bands in the sixties.
“Howlin’ Wolf”, born Chester Burnett (1910-1975), singer, songwriter, guitar, harmonica
He Opened My Eyes
My interest in top 40 style music began to wane in the mid-eighties. I started going backwards in earnest, looking for good older music. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was one of those artists that record guides said, “You should hear this.” There was a record store in Santa Clara, “Big Al’s Record Barn”, that had 45s of everything. A specialty store, where you might spend $2.50 for something good, but you could get jukebox ready 45s with two good sides. I have Howlin’ Wolf 45s from Big Al’s, with two-sided gems with “Smokestack Lightning” b/w “Spoonful”.
I checked to see whether Big Al’s was still there. Al was 78 years old in 2013, and it looks like the store is slowly fading away. I remember when Big Al introduced me to Dwight Yoakam, right when Yoakam was breaking through. Big Al’s was my favorite record store ever. I spent a fair amount of time there during the eighties, and bought a lot of 45s to fill holes in my growing music collection.
Booking Howlin’ Wolf For Your High School Graduation
As fate would have it, I visited the Chicago area for the first time last week, a short trip with three days to play golf with friends, and absorb as much as possible.
I played golf on the North Shore the first day, at a venerable private club, with a big, gentle golf course and expansive clubhouse. After golf, I lean the conversation towards Chicago music. Our friend Shelly, high school class of 1968, starts talking about how he hired Howlin’ Wolf to headline his high school graduation concert. Not just Howlin’ Wolf, mind you, but also swing bandleader Woody Herman plus hot Chicago pop combo du jour The Cryan’ Shames. What? No Buckinghams? As Shelly recalls, “We hired one band for the parents, one for the kids, and one for us.” Many parents left the building when Wolf took the stage.
“…when he entered the Chess studios in 1954, the violent aggression of the Memphis sides was being replaced with a Chicago backbeat and, with very little fanfare, a new member in the band, Hubert Sumlin, who proved himself to be the Wolf’s longest-running musical associate. In what can only be described as an “angular attack”, Sumlin played almost no chords behind Wolf, sometimes soloing right through his vocals, featuring wild skitterings up and down the fingerboard and biting single notes…
Certainly any list of Wolf’s greatest sides would have to include “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “The Red Rooster”, “Shake For Me”, “Back Door Man”, “Spoonful” and “Wang Dang Doodle”, (Willie) Dixon compositions all.”
— Cub Koda
Cub Koda also wrote “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room” with Brownsville Station. Remember that one?
The Rocking Chair Album
I went out and purchased The Rocking Chair Album around 1986. In its vinyl form, it was the exact set of songs that moved young British fans of American blues. The artists featured in the Related Songs section establishes the music’s influence, without further explanation. Later on, I purchased a CD, a European Chess import, with twice the number of songs, but nothing beats that original dozen songs on this great blues album.
Two of Howlin’ Wolf’s were particularly influential:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_Rooster lays the groundwork for the Rolling Stones’ first great song. Mick Jagger’s singing is admirable, and his harmonica solo during the fade is legendary. Brian Jones reworks the guitar fills in very innovative fashion. A #1 hit in Britain, it was banned from American airwaves, though the song’s barnyard lyrics can hardly be considered racy. The Stones’ laid back version is a personal favorite.
Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” is an obvious remake of Wolf’s “How Many More Years”, retooled in the Chess era as “No Place To Go” or “You Gonna Wreck My Life”. It’s disappointing to author’s credit only given to Plant, Page, and Jones, when Burnett belongs. Zeppelin’s “How Many More Years” is influential, crashing barriers of expression for its time.
Smokestack Lightning. A steam train. A Viagra commercial.
A Man’s Man, Not For The Ladies
I’ve never met a woman who cared for Howlin’ Wolf. His message is too direct, the music’s harsh and primitive. He’s three hundred pounds of joy, he’s the back door man, and he’s built for comfort, not for speed. There’s no peace in the barnyard when the little red rooster is gone. You can indoctrinate a nice girl to Howlin’ Wolf, but what he says is meaningful to men.
In a sentiment that will be repeated often, the importance of a good band, in this case the Chess Records band, cannot be underestimated. On iTunes, start with the album called His Best; it has great sound quality. If you have any other questions about which versions to choose, do not hesitate to ask.
Howlin’ Wolf is impossible to imitate; perhaps this encouraged creative interpretations like the Rolling Stones’ “The Red Rooster” and Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Years”. A very influential and powerful voice in rock and blues music.
Howlin’ Wolf Songs
Spoonful, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
No Place To Go (aka “You Gonna Wreck My Life”), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
The Red Rooster, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
Smokestack Lightnin’, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
Back Door Man, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
Wang Dang Doodle, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭✭
Shake For Me, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭
I Ain’t Superstitious, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭
Who’s Been Talkin’, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭
Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭
Howlin’ For My Darlin’, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭✭
The Red Rooster (False Start), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Tell Me, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Goin’ Down Slow (Alt), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Come To Me Baby, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Killing Floor, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Evil, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Forty-Four, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Moanin’ At Midnight, Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Who’s Been Talking? (Alt), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Shake For Me (Live), Howlin’ Wolf ✭✭
Who Will Be Next?, Howlin’ Wolf ✭
How Many More Years (Original), Howlin’ Wolf ✭
Hidden Charms, Howlin’ Wolf ✭
Built For Comfort, Howlin’ Wolf ✭
Chocolate Drop (Alt), Howlin’ Wolf ✭
I Have A Little Girl, Howlin’ Wolf ✭
Down In The Bottom, Howlin’ Wolf ✭
Pea Vine Blues, Charlie Patton ✭
High Water Everywhere (Pt. 1), Charlie Patton ✭✭
Pony Blues, Charlie Patton ✭✭
The Red Rooster, Rolling Stones ✭✭✭✭✭
The Red Rooster, Sam Cooke ✭✭
Killing Floor (Live), Jimi Hendrix Experience ✭
Shake For Me, John Hammond, Jr. ✭✭✭
How Many More Times, Led Zeppelin ✭✭
Spoonful (Live), Cream ✭✭
Come To Me Baby (Live), Lucinda Williams ✭
Wang Dang Doodle, Koko Taylor ✭✭✭
I Ain’t Superstitious, Jeff Beck ✭✭
Back Door Man, The Doors ✭✭✭
Back Door Man (Live), The Doors ✭✭
Goin’ Down Slow, Duane Allman ✭
Goin’ Down Slow (Live), Jeff Beck & Tom Jones ✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Mississippi Shieks ✭✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World (Alt), Grateful Dead ✭✭✭