Defining a legend in 10 songs: Howlin’ Wolf

By Sergio Ariza

A lot of people wonder what the blues is? There will be those who get theoretical and say that it is "a repetitive pattern, which usually follows a structure of twelve bars", there will be those who get poetic and say that blues is "a feeling", there are those, like our protagonist, who say "when you ain’t got no money, you have the blues", but I think it's best to go to the main sources. If you want to know what blues is, listen to Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters or the man to whom today we dedicate this special, Howlin' Wolf. In these 10 songs there is, in a way, the essence of blues. To listen to them is to receive a crash course on this music.

How Many More Years (1951)

Chester Burnett,
better known as Howlin' Wolf, had been singing and playing for over 20 years when his incredible voice was first recorded on a record in the city of Memphis. It is normal that from that first moment he sounded like the master he already was. In July 1951 he returned to the Memphis Recording Service studios, which the world would later know as Sun Records, and recorded one of the most important sessions in the history of popular music, resulting in Moanin' At Midnight and How Many More Years. The second is for many the first stone of the great castle of rock & roll, Ike Turner's piano was smoking, Willie Johnson's guitar exploded with the first sample of distortion but, above all, there was the voice of Howlin' Wolf, a rough roar with which he poured his heart and soul.

Evil (Is Going On) (1954)

The huge success of Moanin' At Midnight and How Many More Years made Wolf the most coveted blues musician by all blues labels. In the end, the game was won by Chess and Wolf headed to Chicago to rival Muddy Waters for the title of king of the scene. These were the most incredible years in the history of blues and left treasures like this Evil (Is Going On), recorded in 1954, a year after Wolf's arrival in Chicago, with some of the regulars of his band accompaniment as the fundamental Hubert Sumlin on guitar (with the Kay 'Thin Twin' that Wolf had bought him), Willie Dixon on bass or Otis Spann on piano. All, again, eclipsed by this giant's raspy throat.

Other versions: Captain Beefheart, Canned Heat, Derek & The Dominos

Smokestack Lightnin' (1956)

In January 1956 Howlin Wolf decided to record a song he had been singing since the 1930s, Smokestack Lightnin', but now he had a new electric arrangement featuring an incredible riff by Hubert Sumlin which would be copied ad nauseam. The song was a tremendous success and turned Sumlin, who by then already had the mythical Les Paul Goldtop that Wolf gave him, into the right hand of his mentor. Perhaps it was this riff that caused Muddy Waters to steal it from Wolf for a few months, until Sumlin decided to return to the fold with the man he considered a second father.

Other versions: The Yardbirds, The Animals, Grateful Dead

I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) (1956)

An unadulterated ration of Howlin' Wolf with a hypnotic guitar riff by Willie Johnson. Pure blues to which Wolf's howl, here more than ever, gives a distinctive threatening tone to that incredible lyric that reaches the height of its powerful title: "Oh, I asked her for water, oh, she brought me gasoline. That's the troublingest woman, that I ever seen / Oh, the church bell tollin', oh, the hearse come driving slow, I hope my baby don't leave me no more". It was another big hit on
Billboard's R&B charts, where it slipped into the Top Ten.

Other versions: Lucinda Williams

Sitting On Top Of The World (1957)

The original version of this song is a Mississippi Sheiks
country blues released in 1930. That same year Charley Patton, Wolf's mentor, performed a version he called Some Summer Day. That's the most likely source for the canonical version of Howlin' Wolf in 1957, which, in turn, will serve as a model for the well-known cover of Cream, with which Eric Clapton will pay his respects to two of the men he has most admired, Wolf himself and Hubert Sumlin.

Other versions: Bob Wills, Ray Charles, Cream

Spoonful (1960)

Another song signed by Willie Dixon, despite having its origins in a Patton theme that Wolf adapted to his style. Those spoonfuls were nothing but the pleasures and temptations of bluesmen: sex and drugs. Wolf again gives a masterful interpretation, bringing a brutal intensity to it, again on a lethargic rhythm in which Sumlin's guitar shines again.

Other versions: Etta James, Cream

Back Door Man (1961)

This incredible song originally appeared as the B-side of another of Wolf's great tunes, Wang-Dang Doodle, which gives us an idea of the incredible moment that Wolf was going through at the beginning of the 60s, despite being over 50 years old. This Back Door Man, which the Doors would retrieve for their acclaimed debut, refers to a slang phrase from the South that is used to designate the man who had a relationship with a married woman, someone who had to use the back door every time the husband appeared. No wonder Wolf repeats that "I'm the back door man, well, the men don't know, but the little girls understand".

Other versions: The Doors,
Shadows Of Knight

The Red Rooster (1961)

Although he used to play guitar at concerts, Wolf used to let others, like Sumlin or Johnson, play the instrument on his recordings. But when the giant decided to get on the six strings then something big was going to happen. The Red Rooster, which would become known as Little Red Rooster after the covers of Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones, contains an incredible 'lick' in the slide on which the song is built and which would serve as inspiration for Brian Jones
in the the Stones’ cover. Although Wolf had been playing this song since his time with Patton in the 30's, it's Willie Dixon again who gets the credit.

Other versions: The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke

I Ain't Superstitious (1962)

In songs like I Ain't Superstitious you can see how Wolf evolves from Delta blues to something more sophisticated and, at the same time, aggressive. The song, composed by Willie Dixon, has become a standard blues, despite its null initial success, and has received countless covers, perhaps the brightest was that of the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart singing the lead.

Other versions: The Jeff Beck Group, The Grateful Dead,


Killing Floor (1964)

In 1964, in the midst of the explosion of the British Invasion, Wolf recorded the immortal Killing Floor, a song of his own that showed that the creative torrent continued to flow unceasingly. It is one of the most important songs of his career and features splendid work by Hubert Sumlin with his Les Paul Goldtop on lead guitar, perfectly accompanied by a young Buddy Guy on acoustic guitar. The song would become a tremendous inspiration for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. This would be the song with which Hendrix would dazzle Clapton shortly after arriving in London and the basis on which Led Zeppelin would build The Lemon Song.

Other versions: Jimi Hendrix, The Electric Flag, Albert King