Sunday, 4 January 2015

Reflections on Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' Wolf (1962) and The Howlin' Wolf Album (1969)

Referenced via: Down In The Bottom played on 2 November 1991.  Original release on Chess Records.  2014 reissue on Hallmark Records.

My record collection hunt begins with two albums by one of the giants of 20th Century blues music, Chester Burnett aka Howlin' Wolf.

Howlin' Wolf (1962) Val Doonican vibe in the cover art

Wolf began releasing records on the Chess label in 1951 and remained astonishingly productive all the way upto his death in 1976.  In 1962, Chess gathered together 6 of the 7 singles that Wolf had released between 1960 and 1962 and put the A and B sides out as a compilation album which they entitled simply, Howlin' Wolf.  As an arrival point for a Wolf novice, which I am, it's an ideal album to start with for him.
Given that these songs were intended for singles, they contain the essential element of economy that was such a feature of pre-House of the Rising Sun 7"s, but being rooted in the blues, there was nothing throwaway about any of these tracks, even the B-sides.
From the opening Latin blues sway of Shake for Me through to the almost showband blues of Tell Me, the listener is grasped both by Wolf's voice and Hubert Sumlin's urgent guitar lines.  However, the first half of the album passes by in such a blur that only The Red Rooster really makes an impression and that's mainly down to what's missing from Wolf's version compared to the better known Rolling Stones version.  I have heard a recording of Peel playing a version of this by The Jesus and Mary Chain in 1993 which makes it into a pile driving rock song, but that's for another time.

The album starts to pick up from track 6 onwards.  Little Baby is a blues song which anybody can sing.  I wouldn't attempt to try and sing any of the earlier cuts like Who's Been Talking, but If you put Val Doonican into the rocking chair on the front cover of the album, then Little Baby would be the tune he'd come back at you with.  The ladder is pulled up again on subsequent tracks but the battle of engagement has been won and the listener can revel in Wolf doing his stuff on the likes of Spoonful, Down in The Bottom and Howlin' for my Baby.  The standout track is Back Door Man, a key blues touchstone tune.  Basically, every "Woke up this morning" blues song parody you've ever heard uses Back Door Man as its riff, but this tale of a man making his escape after nights spent making love to the women of the men working on the night shift is the original work.  Wolf's voice on every refrain
of "I AMMMMMM... Back door man" is that mythical, much discussed "sound of the blues" and with his voice front and centre throughout, it's pretty hard to resist.

The sound of the blues...

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for 1969's The Howlin' Wolf Album.

The Howlin' Wolf Album (1969) - Note reverse psychology advertising strategy for cover art.
The idea behind it was impeccable, Marshall Chess of Chess Records decided to pair up both Wolf and Muddy Waters with the avant garde, Chicago rock band, The Rotary Connection to create a fusion between old school blues and late 60s acid rock.  The records were released on a new subsidiary of Chess Records called Cadet Concept.

Waters's effort, Electric Mud, was released first in October 1968.  The Howlin' Wolf album followed a year later.  Neither man was happy with the final product, feeling that neither of them worked as blues albums or as rock albums.  Chess tried to work Wolf's dis-satisfaction into the marketing of the record by telling the record buying public on the front cover that he didn't like the record they were
thinking of buying, but to basically ignore him on this.  The album also includes two short spoken
word interludes where Wolf reflects on the "queer" sound of electric guitars and later states that
people don't like the blues and that the sound of today, 1968 and by extension the record he was then working on, wasn't the blues.

When dealing with a good record that the artist who made it criticises, the common argument against them is that they were too close to the product to judge it.  But this isn't a good record and Wolf's unhappiness was thoroughly justified here.  The record's main issue is that Wolf is too often pushed into the background while wah-wahs wah, fuzz guitars scream and Morris Jennings on drums runs through his full repertoire of Keith Moon fills.  There aren't enough instances where Wolf and The Rotary Connection seem in sync with each other.  This leads to lapses like the ridiculously
overblown, echo laden ending of Smokestack Lightning or the interminable noodling on Moanin' at
Midnight, Wolf's first single for Chess in 1951, which sees Wolf doing his trademark howl,
ineffectually over a band that take the music nowhere.  Four songs are revisited from the 1962 album (Spoonful, The Red Rooster, Down in the Bottom and Back Door Man) and get a psychedelic rock
overhaul, meaning that the best they can come away with is an honourable defeat next to the original recordings. 

Only twice does the album really hit its stride.  The Rotary Connection find a lovely laid back groove on Built For Comfort and this encourages Wolf to deliver a characterful vocal.  Standout track is one of Wolf's standards, Evil, which sees everyone deliver the goods. Perhaps the reason for this being that Wolf seems to take centre stage in these songs in a way which he is never given the room to in the other tracks.

Evil - the best performance on the record.

Although, Wolf didn't enjoy himself with The Rotary Connection, he didn't turn his back on the contemporary scene altogether given that a year later he was in London working with such luminaries as Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts on an LP called The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions.

Videos courtesy of MrJohnnyNumbers and DeepDownSound.
Mixtape choices: Little Baby, Spoonful, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man, Howlin' for my Baby (Howlin' Wolf);
Spoonful, Built For Comfort, Evil, Back Door Man (The Howlin' Wolf Album)

Discogs links

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