Howlin’ Wolf was the biggest physical force in blues history. He was a huge man who stood Six foot five and close to 300 pounds in his prime and had size 16 feet. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice has been compared to “the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road”. He may not have been the best in any one category but he was so good at all of them and he attacked the music so violently that he had to stand out. Cub Koda was quoted as saying ”no one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits”.
As a young man, Wolf became interested in the local blues musicians. Charley Patton lived nearby and when his father bought him his first guitar in 1928, he asked Patton to give him guitar lessons. He later receieved harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson II, who was dating his step-sister, Mary. He learned to sing by listening to records. “Blind” Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Blake were some of his favourites. During breaks from working on his father’s farm, he traveled the Delta with other musicians like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown.
He steadily built his reputation until he relocated. In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson. He also got a spot playing blues on radio station KWEM. He started recording in 1951 for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Two hit records were delivered from those recording sessions and he had become a hot commodity. Chess Records finally won him over in 1953 and he headed for Chicago. As Wolf would proudly say years later, “I had a 4,000 dollar car and 3,900 dollars in my pocket. I’m the onliest one drove out of the South like a gentleman.”
Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.When Wolf passed away in 1976, a life-size statue of him was erected shortly after in a Chicago park. Since that time Wolf has had a child-education center in Chicago named in his honor,in 1980 he was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, in 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his face has appeared on a US postage stamp. The seventh entry on my list is part of Chess’ 50th Anniversary series. Howlin’ Wolf’s “His Best” is a 20-track retrospective that is the perfect introduction to the man and his music. This is without doubt some of the most essential blues ever recorded and also some of the very best.
1 Moanin’ at Midnight (Howlin’ Wolf) 2:56
2 How Many More Years (Howlin’ Wolf) 2:43
3 Evil (Dixon) 2:55
4 Forty-Four (Howlin’ Wolf) 2:49
5 Smokestack Lightning (Howlin’ Wolf) 3:09
6 I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) (Howlin’ Wolf) 2:52
7 Who’s Been Talking? (Howlin’ Wolf) 2:24
8 Sitting on Top of the World (Chatmon, Vinson) 2:34
9 Howlin’ for My Darlin’ (Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf) 2:33
10 Wang Dang Doodle (Dixon) 2:25
11 Back Door Man (Dixon) 2:51
12 Spoonful (Dixon) 2:45
13 Shake for Me (Dixon) 2:18
14 The Red Rooster (Dixon) 2:29
15 I Ain’t Superstitious (Dixon) 2:56
16 Goin’ Down Slow (Oden) 4:04
17 Three Hundred Pounds of Joy (Dixon) 3:07
18 Hidden Charms (Dixon) 2:23
19 Built for Comfort (Dixon) 2:39
20 Killing Floor (Burnett) 2:49