Some days when you are totally into music can feel just like Christmas. A day when you get a present that is a complete surprise. A present that helps you further joy in yourself, that then gets passed on to others. I have had many such days in the music business, but one in particular stands out above the others. That day, somewhere around 1987, when I went out and bought my first Howlin’ Wolf CD. I have written about it before, but it bears repeating.
I love “twofer” CDs. For those that don’t know, a twofer is two albums in one package. There is no finer twofer, in my humble opinion, than the first two Howlin’ Wolf albums from Chess Records. Much like in the country music setting of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell; where two artists basically define the genre’s main styles. In the blues milieu we have Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Giants who defined their particular strengths into one potent force that drove their careers until the end of their lives. Muddy’s music is slightly more accessible for the blues novice and I had been getting into his music for awhile before I decided I needed to explore the other giant I had heard so much about from the English Rock musicians like the Rolling Stones.
There is a wonderful clip of the Rolling Stones introducing Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig. The band is amazing and includes Billy Preston, who locks onto Wolf like a laser beam and accents Wolf’s performance in the best manner. Also on stage is guitarist James Burton and the great session bass player Larry Knechtel. Wolf commands the stage in a way few others can do and to see Brian Jones’s smiling face throughout the performance still speaks volumes to me. I can still hear the announcer calling him “Mr. Howlin” at one point, so from now on I will refer to Wolf as “Mr Howlin”.
By the way for those interested, Wolf’s real name was Chester Arthur Burnett. Mr. Howlin’s first two records start with “Shake For Me”. In one song this music set the table for me of full musical meals for a lifetime of sustenance. I could talk about the ride cymbal work of Sam Lay alone for a page or two. It sounded to me like everyone was playing a different style of music all at the same time. You had the half samba of the drums. Then you have the great genius guitar work of Hubert Sumlin doing those great abbreviated licks that work in counterpoint to the rhythm section, accenting and driving all in one well defined package. All the while the percolating bass of Willie Dixon provides the songs movement that gives it a three dimensional sculpture. From there the race is over, it slams into “Red Rooster”, and my journey of discovery regarding Mr Howlin’s music had begun. Many say that the blues sounds the same. They obviously do not really listen. I still get lost in the sound of “Who’s Been Talkin”. “I’m The Causing of It All”, is one of my favorite lyrics for its honesty alone. The echo in itself creates such a haunting beauty that was created in a nondescript building in Chicago and makes it sound like it was recorded on a different planet to me.
The album just keeps getting better and better as you discover the richness and nuance of Mr. Howlin’s voice. “Wang Dang Doodle” is one of my all time favorite Saturday Night records. Makes me want to laugh, dance, fight and f**k all at the same time, to this day. I still get called Pistol Pete sometimes because of people like Sir Carlton J. Smith, knowing that record. The beginning guitar of “Little Baby”, to me, is still the way a guitar should come in on a record; authority and attitude using a minimal amount of notes. On some of the tracks in the middle of the CD, you have the tag team duo of Jimmy Rogers and Hubert on guitar. Also playing, the great Jody Williams. He played in the studio with Mr Howlin’s band sometimes and I had the great pleasure of distributing his later records when he revived his playing career. The genius piano player Otis Spann is always worth paying attention to as well. The grace of his playing puts gold dust on the recordings he plays on. Long before Viagra co-opted the viral sexuality of “Smokestack Lightning” in TV commercials, damn near neutering the song. It was a cry in the dark, about the feelings of men and women, with those amazing moans and howls that are Mr. Howlin’s trademark.
I cannot do a song by song review of all 24 tracks on this CD. Suffice to say, every song is a gem and anyone who loves, or even casually likes the blues, needs to own this CD. There is no finer driving music than putting this one on and letting it roll as you hit the highway. Do yourself a favor, just go out and buy this CD. You cannot go wrong. And then thank me later. ;o)