Classic Album: Howlin’ Wolf – Rockin’ Chair

Rockin ChairWhen it comes to iconic blues albums, few (if any) can match the fire and fury of Chess Records’ 1962 Howlin’ Wolf release. The mighty Wolf has rightfully gone down in the history books as the most ferocious blues performer of all time, and with good reason. Between 1960-1962, the Chess label released these twelve tunes in singles form, ultimately placing them in a single collection. Many iconic bluesmen appear on the LP, including Willie Dixon, J.T. Brown, Jody Williams, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, and Hubert Sumlin, who was Wolf’s right-hand guitar man.

Artist Don Bronstein created the album’s cover, which shows an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. Through the years this has caused the LP to be known as “The Rockin’ Chair Album.”

The LP kicks off with the Willie Dixon-penned “Shake For Me.” This up-tempo blues shows Wolf charging out of the gate—just as he was known to do at his live performances. On stage, no one could touch him, and this tune brings the listener as close to that live experience as possible.

“The Red Rooster” is up next. Another Dixon-penned tune, “Rooster” has been covered by everyone, from Sam Cooke to the Rolling Stones. Through the years it has become more known as “Little Red Rooster.” This is a prime example of what has made this album so iconic. This is pure, unaltered electric Chicago blues at it’s finest.

“You’ll Be Mine” picks the tempo up again, showing the world what would catch the ears of a young Stevie Ray Vaughan, who covered this tune many years later. “Who’s Been Talkin'” is a Wolf original that throws his harmonica skills our front and center, which I’ve always felt were overlooked. Simple, yet very effective and in the pocket, this tune shows that Howlin’ Wolf could lay down licks with the best of them.

“Wang Dang Doodle” is a classic Blues that has been covered a million times over. This version reminds us why. Over the years I’ve heard great takes on this from Koko Taylor to Gov’t Mule. This is another Willie Dixon composition. With it’s references to characters Automatic Slim, Razor-Totin’ Jim, Butcher Knife-Totin’ Annie, and Fast Talkin’ Fannie, the song tells the tale of a full-on great night! Dixon once stated that, down South, “Wang Dang Doodle” simply meant, “Having a good time.”

“Little Baby” stands as one of the most underrated Howlin’ Wolf tunes. With it’s catchy lyrics and driving rhythm, it stands right alongside more well-known songs, but never appears on lists with any of those. Fear not, though: It’s here on the “Rockin’ Chair “ LP, so turn it up!

“Spoonful” once again brings a Willie Dixon-penned tune into the fold. Critics have praised this as Dixon’s ultimate “made for Wolf” composition. It is a classic example of a one-chord Blues, never changing in structure or tempo. It is very similar in many ways to “Smokestack Lightning,” perhaps Wolf’s most famous tune. Spoonful’s drive caught the ears of many who performed cover versions over the years, most notably Eric Clapton and Cream.

“Going Down Slow” is a classic slow blues, originally written by “St. Louis” Jimmy Oden. Through the years it has risen to the top of many essential blues lists. Wolf absolutely owns this version, and many probably assume it is his composition, never knowing about Oden’s original. This is understandable, but sad all at once. Wolf indeed puts his own touch on “Going Down Slow”, but Oden’s version is awesome too, and those who have never heard it should check it out. One interesting note about this track is the narrative placed between the lines that are sung. Many probably assume this is Howlin’ Wolf, but it is actually spoken by Willie Dixon. Even though he didn’t write this one, it is his classic bass playing on the tune, and indeed his voice we hear narrating the spoken words.

“Down In The Bottom” picks up the tempo, and reminds the listener why Muddy Waters famous quote about the blues having a baby named rock and roll so true. This tune is rock and roll, and Wolf owns it, showing the world he was indeed the very first rock star.

“Back Door Man”, another Willie Dixon song, yet again falls into the iconic Blues category. The Doors, the Animals and countless others have put their bids in on great cover versions of this one, but none can match the fury of the Howlin’ Wolf. You can almost feel the studio microphone begging for mercy as Wolf tears it to shreds with his powerful pipes.

“Howlin’ For My Baby” again raises the tempo as this rocker reminds us why Howlin’ Wolf has gone down in the history books as perhaps the ultimate live Bluesman. Do your homework and read the stories. Many attempted to upstage him during his time, and they all failed miserably. Songs like this stir images of The Mighty Wolf prowling the stage, insisting the tempo stayed up so the people could get up! He never did too many slow tunes in a set, preferring to keep the crowds dancing and giving them a show.
Wolf’s own “Tell Me” closes out the LP. Another up-tempo number, it is classic blues songwriting at it’s finest, causing even Stevie Ray Vaughan to cover it many years later.

Sam Phillips, owner of Memphis’ Sun Studio once said about witnessing Howlin’ Wolf when he first came to his studio: “When I heard him, I said, This is for me! This is where the soul of man never dies. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I’ve ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man’s face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you’d see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.”

Needless to say, by this point the listener has experienced some of the finest blues this world will ever hear. The twelve tracks on this LP have influenced generation after generation of musicians, and will continue to do so as long as music is around. Original copies are highly sought after by collectors today. It’s safe to say that, at any given time, in any blues club in the world, these tunes are being played. There will never be another like Chester Burnett, the mighty Howlin’ Wolf. The endless list of artists covering his songs and mimicking his stage persona assure he will live forever, and the tracks on “Rockin’ Chair” are textbook examples of what electric blues should be.

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe is a full time musician/teacher in the Chicago area and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News. His first exposure to music was hearing his Grandfather's bands playing Traditional Country music by the likes of Hank Williams Sr., The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Tracing the roots of that music lead him to his love of the Blues. Todd is available for private guitar instruction at All About Music, Inc. in Mokena, IL. 708-479-0440 www.AllAboutMusicMokena.com For more info contact him @ 708-214-6459 or visit www.ToddBeebeMusic.com.

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