Standing at around two metres tall and weighing in at some 300lbs in his not-so salad days, Howlin’ Wolf was as a big a physical presence in the blues world as he was a figurative monolith. As fellow bluesman Cub Koda testified, “no one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.”
When famed producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, first heard his blues rattle, he remarked, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.” And when Bob Dylan saw him live, he declared to Rolling Stone, “Howlin’ Wolf, to me, was the greatest live act, because he did not have to move a finger when he performed – if that’s what you’d call it, ‘performing’.”
All of this helps to form a pretty solid picture of his rafter-rattling, soul-exposing, sock-shaking howl, but as ever with the blues, it would seem that he had to endure a lot to acquire it. In the words of Big Bill Broonzy, when it comes to the blues “you’ve got to have it to play it.”
Born in the Mississippi Delta, as with many of the great American guitarists, Howlin’ ‘Chester Burnett’ Wolf learnt his trait the hard way. One winter, as a child, he was kicked out of his home and sent to live with his great uncle, who mistreated him. He worked day and night on his uncle’s farm and was denied a school education. One day, Wolf claimed that he left his uncles farmyard and walked 85 miles barefoot to join his father, where finally some stability and happiness could be found.
When he set up shop in Chicago, he soon found fame amid the blooming blues scene. He put both his distinctive style and his career choice down to necessity; “I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’, and it’s done me just fine,” he said of his style, and of his need to propagate it he often said that he didn’t have any schooling so he couldn’t do much else.
For all the reasons listed above, it is clear to see why he is considered one of the cornerstones to modern rock ‘n’ roll. He was a one-man riot and, in many ways, became the ultimate proto-rock star. Below we’re looking at the howls that defined him and, in the process, helped to shape music.
The six definitive songs of Howlin’ Wolf:
‘Smokestack Lightnin’’ (1956)
When it comes to Howlin’ Wolf, the only place to start is a song that you’ve heard a thousand times without knowing it. ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’is absolutely everywhere, either through corroborated permutations, the iconic howl or the rumbling behemoth of song that it comprises in its own right.
The track sees the singing style that he became known for in full effect in what is a pure distillation of the blues. The song was released in 1956 and it seemed even then to have one foot in the rock ‘n’ roll future and another in the almost mythical primitive past.
‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ (1951)
Record and released way back in 1951, ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ was the song that introduced Howlin’ Wolf as a sui generis force to the masses. When Sam Phillips heard the track, he remarked that it was “the most different record I ever heard”, and given that fact he had heard just about everything music had to offer at that stage, the statement epitomes the Promethean force that ‘the Wolf’ represented.
With a band that comprised Ike Turner on piano, Willie Johnson on guitar and Willie Steele on the drums, the rattling bouncy sound has a beguiling force to it that led many to condemn the intoxicating effect as the “devil’s music” (including his own mother) and others to champion it as pure exultant joy.
‘Crying at Daybreak’ (1952)
1952 ‘Crying at Daybreak’ is, for many people, the ultimate representation of blues in its melee of motion. The song lifts refrains from classics, features fragments of ‘Smokestack Lighnin’’, but is twisted into something entirely original.
The beauty of the song now is how transportive it is; like many of the best blues anthems, it simultaneously captures a time and place but remains eternal through its wholly primitive profundity. What’s more, it brilliantly shows off Howlin’ Wolf’s often overlooked craft, with arrangement flourishes that set him aside.
‘Killing Floor’ (1964)
‘Killing Floor’ is a song that many musical historians point to as a defining moment in the electric blues movement. The 1964 single went on to be covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin, pushing the envelope for blues rock ‘n’ roll.
The gnarled atmosphere and uber-gruff vocals lend the songs skipping melody a lowdown dusty realism. There are echoes of this song in so much of the music that followed, that listening to it now, is both a treat and an eye-opener. The blues might have gone electric, but it was still serving up the same soul, as Wolf said himself, “A lot of people wonder, what is the blues? Well, I’m gonna tell you what the blues is.”
‘Spoonful’ (The Super, Super Blues Band) (1967)
In 1967 the three kings of the blues world – Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf – set their rivalry aside, or rather carried it into the studio, for a record that raved with pure blues spirit. The Super, Super Blues Band is a roots equivalent of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach getting into the studio together and the fireworks that follow are a force to behold, with ‘Spoonful’ burning the brightest.
Throughout the record, Wolf refuses to leave his contentions at the door and studio banter imbues the album with a visceral sense of atmosphere. On ‘Spoonful’ that is all briefly sequestered for a moment of the raw sonic symphony.
‘The Red Rooster’ (1969)
The sleeve for his 1969 record, The Howlin’ Wolf Album, featured the iconic slogan: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” Aside from being a purely brilliant piece of promotional work, it shows how he never took himself too seriously.
Far from wallowing, the blues is about taking pains, refusing to shy away from them, but ultimately sliding yourself out from under the cloud. ‘The Red Rooster’ is a rollicking example of this lighter side, and the wah-wah guitar work by Huber Sumlin is a superb sonic assault.