Thursday, 5 July 2012

Howlin Wolf- Howlin Wolf

Howlin Wolf's 1962 self titled album is often referred as the rocking chair album because of the front cover which features a rocking chair. It's also one of the most influential blues albums, it resonated deeply with young musicians especially in the U.K where it's style was quickly adopted by the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and later on acts like Cream and Led Zeppelin. A lot of the R&B bands that came through the mid 60's in the U.S such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were also deeply influenced by this album.

The greatness of this album lies in it's rawness, it's ragged and powerful with piercing staccato guitar notes and rapid fire blues piano that match equally those fierce Howlin Wolf style growling vocals. Like a lot of blues albums from this period most of the songs were compiled from sessions that had taken place over a few years, in this case there were songs going as far back as 1957. Most of the songs were recorded between June 1960 and the end of 1961 and feature a classic list of Chicago musicians who helped shape the Chicago blues style and were also influential on the rock and roll scene in general.

The album starts with a blast from guitarist Hubert Sumlin on Shake For Me, Sumlins playing is incredible the song is full of these bursts of notes with Sumlin stretching and wringing every possible sound from his instrument. In the verses he answers Wolf in call and response style before his solo which has him making those notes scream, you can hear where Robbie Robertson developed his early sound. These sessions from May 1961 feature a classic studio lineup of Sumlin, the great Willie Dixon on bass, Johnny Jones on piano and Sam Lay laying a percussive syncopated groove on the drums. The Red Rooster is a slow barnyard blues with Hubert playing in a slide style once again stretching each note, wrenching everything possible from it. Wolf is at his menacing growling best, like a wolf prowling the yard. The Rolling Stones recorded this song as Little Red Rooster and took it to the top of the U.K charts in early 1964, the slide guitar on that version from Brian Jones is excellent.

The exalting You'll Be Mine features another underrated guitarist in Jimmie Rogers, this song has a loose jam like feel to it but as always underpinned by the rhythmic strength of Willie Dixon on bass and Sam Lay on drums. Who's Been Talking comes from 1957 and features Wolf on harp whilst maybe not as fluid as Sonny Boy he made up for it in his short powerful bursts. Wang Dang Doodle once again has the familiar staccato one note bursts from Sumlin at the start of the song, also featured is the great Chicago pianist Otis Spann. Howlin Wolf is at his best when conveying a menacing theme as he rumbles through the South side of Chicago with an assortment of shady characters. It's a funky tale of old blues dancehalls with sawdust on the floor and free flowing hooch. Little Baby too me has for the time a very salacious lyric with Wolf seemingly in the role of a pimp but one who has his flame front and centre in his affections for his girl. The classic Spoonful has that classic call and response pattern with some expressive playing from Sumlin, who growls at those low notes below Wolf's vocals, Otis Spann does a great job filling the space especially in the solo with Sumlin it's almost like he is matching Sumlin for a ferocious display of sound. Going Down Slow is a slow blues number with Henry Gray tinkling the ivories in a similar boogie style to Spann, the vocals are shared between Wolf and Dixon, and Sumlin plays those slow aching blues notes in a wonderfully dishevelled fashion.

Down in the Bottom has a real funky groove, one that was copied endlessly in the late 60's, with some nice scratchy rhythm playing from Jimmy Rogers. There is a nice cover version from John Hammong jnr who recorded it on his So Many Roads album from 1965. Another slow and salacious number is Back Door Man, as Wolf growls the men don't understand but the little girls understand as Wolf makes his midnight creep. Howlin For My Baby which was recorded in 1959 has a different feel, with the addition of horns the song has a rock and roll feel and was later released as a single, it has a more polished feel not that this distracts in any manner from the album, it's a wonderful addition. Sumlin sounds different on this track more fluid solo less jagged cutting solos. Tell Me from the 1957 sessions has that more loping Chicago R&B sound with that Chuck Berry style rhythm guitar and some fierce harp work from Howlin Wolf. What made Wolf so unique was his style he had this ability to convey the blues, that sense of wretchedness but also that sense of danger. His songs also transcended the typical blues format they were more lascivious, more daring and more sexually explicit in a really pioneering way, he is certainly my favourite bluesman.

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