Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)
[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]
Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.
If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.
For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.
Aha, I thought. This is the one.
Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.
I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.
For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.
“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.
The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.
“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?
“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.
“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!
“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby. So much for the light-hearted side.
“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.
“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.
“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!
“Back Door Man”–The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?
“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.
“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.
Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)