Howlin' Wolf - The Rockin' Chair Album (1962) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

Tracing the source of rock 

Tracing the source of what we know as rock is not as difficult as tracking down the original source of the great rivers of the Earth, such as the Amazon or the Nile. Like these, rock draws from various sources and other rivers, but you don't have to climb any gigantic mountain to find the records that have influenced it the most. Suffice this barbarity as an example, an album that collects several of Howlin' Wolf's best singles for Chess recorded between 1960 and 1962; 12 songs among which we find the sources that lead us to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Cream, demonstrating that at the age of 50, Chester Arthur Burnett, or Howlin' Wolf, was at the height of his career as the visible head, along with that of his rival Muddy Waters, of the bustling blues of Chicago.

One can almost imagine the excitement of those beardless teenagers when they got hold of a copy of this record, released in January 1962, which featured a rocking chair and an old wooden acoustic guitar against a green background (a cover that could not have been more misleading, for what this record contained was not rural, acoustic blues but wild, electric Chicago blues). For them it must have been like standing before the Holy Scriptures of the blues; Wolf's howls being the equivalent of the sermon on the mount. This was a wake-up call to drop everything, pick up an electric guitar and try to follow in his footsteps.  


The album opened with the incredible Shake For Me, in which Wolf's powerful voice was accompanied on guitar by his pupil
Hubert Sumlin, who delivered a great solo on his Les Paul Goldtop. Years later Led Zeppelin used part of his lyrics, and those of Back Door Man, for their Whole Lotta Love, which, in turn, also drew from another Chicago blues number: Waters' You Need Love. The latter song again bore the signature of the legendary Chess bassist Willie Dixon, although Wolf had been singing this song since his days with his teacher Charley Patton in the 1930s. Although he usually played guitar at concerts, Wolf usually let others, such as Sumlin or Willie Johnson, play the instrument on his studio recordings, but when the giant decided to take up the six strings then it was clear that something big was about to happen. The Red Rooster, which would become known as Little Red Rooster after the versions by Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones, contains an incredible slide lick on which the song is built and which would serve as inspiration for Brian Jones in the Stones' version.

Another legendary song written by Willie Dixon, despite having its origins in a Patton song that Wolf adapted to his own style, is Spoonful. Those spoonfuls were nothing more than the pleasures/temptations the bluesmen had: sex and drugs. Wolf again gives a masterful performance, bringing a brutal intensity to it, again over a lethargic rhythm in which Sumlin's guitar once again shines. 


Back Door Man
originally appeared as the B-side to another of Wolf's great songs, Wang-Dang Doodle, which gives us an idea of Wolf's incredible form in the early 60s. The Doors took this song for their acclaimed debut, and it seems clear that Jim Morrison liked the sexual meaning of the song, which refers to a Southern slang phrase used to describe a man who had a relationship with a married woman. Wang-Dang Doodle would go on to become a huge hit for fellow Chess member Koko Taylor in 1966, but Wolf's version is even better, dirtier, wilder and more brutal.

The album closed with a song penned by Wolf himself, called Tell Me. In less than two years the Stones were on their way to the top of the world with their debut album, an album that featured the first song written by Jagger and
Richards, also called Tell Me. Clearly, you don't have to look as far as the great outdoors to find the original sources of the music that changed the world. Chester Arthur Burnett had been singing it for over 30 years, and was still going strong at the same time. To paraphrase Brian Jones, we'd better just shut up and enjoy the great Howlin' Wolf - for example with this album which Mojo magazine said was the third most important in the history of the guitar after Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who's My Generation…