Monday, January 14, 2013
Howlin' Wolf: Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight
The great Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Burnett in White Station, Missisippi in 1910 and who died in 1976 at age 65, was a massive 6'3" and about 300 pounds and his imposing physical stature was enhanced by his imposing growling voice and his manic stage presence. Songs associated with him that have become legendary blues masterpieces include "Smokestack Lightning;" "Back Door Man;" "Killing Floor;" and "How Many More Years."
He began his career in the 1930s, working as a solo performer and in bands throughout the South before serving a two-year Army stint during World War II, though he was not sent overseas. He farmed and continued performing for the remainder of the 1940s and was finally discovered by Sam Phillips, who was later instrumental in launching the careers of early rock legends like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
In 1950, nearing 40, Wolf cut his first sides for Phillips and shortly afterwards made his first recordings for Chicago's famed Chess Records. He was a bit of a free agent those first couple of years, but became an exclusive Chess artist from 1953 when he settled in Chicago. With singles being the medium of the era, Wolf had several top ten R&B tunes during the Fifties and it wasn't until 1959 that his first LP, Moanin' in the Moonlight was released and it consisted of singles dating back to his early years with Chess.
Three years later, he followed with 1962's Howlin' Wolf and there was a distinct difference in approach for this record. Whereas with Moanin' Wolf wrote all the songs, save "Evil," written by blues stalwart Willie Dixon (another track, "Forty Four" was credited to Wolf but was composed by Roosevelt Sykes), the eponymous album featured only two of Wolf's tracks and another by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, with the remainder penned by Dixon.
For the new CD generation, Chess issued a two-fer in 1986 combining the two legendary albums, making this one of the great blues discs of all. The seemingly-strange aspect about this is the sequencing, with Moanin' placed after Howlin' Wolf, but the playing on the latter is just incredible and Wolf's gravelly singing is at its best.
Yet, the revelation, especially for the novice like YHB, is the staggering playing of lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who is only really known to true aficionados. Discovering his keening, piercing style, full of unexpected twists and turns of rhythmic invention and powerful soloing. Other great musicians include Dixon on bass, pianist Spann and future giant Buddy Guy, who played bass on the Howlin' Wolf record. Wolf was a formidable talent, whose singing was rough, but also finely honed and emotionally resonant, but he also had incredible sidemen and the combination makes this dual package a great way to get introduced, as this listener did, to the phenomenon that was Howlin' Wolf.