It would be natural to assume the spawning ground for American blues music, Memphis Tennessee, would serve as the fuse that lit the explosion of what many regard as the artistic zenith of the Blues as a pure original art form. It was during the decade from 1945-55 when a seemingly
endless line of shouters and honkers etched their culture into the American landscape.
This groundswell of talent was already in place thanks to local Memphis area radio stations such as WDIA and WKEM by the time Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording and Sound Service in 1950 at 706 Union Avenue.
In addition to providing a mobile recording service for parties, weddings, and the like, Phillips became acutely aware of the burgeoning Black music scene. In June 1950 Phillips started leasing recordings he had made of artist such as B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, and Ike Turner to independent labels such RPM/Modern in Los Angeles and Chess Records in Chicago. It was in this manner that Chester Burnett, aka The Howlin’ Wolf came to the attention of Phillips through Ike Turner, then serving as a talent scout for Phillips.
Howlin’ Wolf was born in West Point, Mississippi in 1910 and learned to play guitar and harmonica by listening to Charlie Patton and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) respectively.
He migrated to Arkansas from the Delta in 1948, had a radio program on WKEM, and made his debut at 706 Union Avenue a memorable one in mid-1951, recording ‘How Many More Years’,
which was leased by Phillips to Chess and became a hit that same November.
A steady stream of Chess releases followed resulting in The Wolf’s eventual migration to Chicago in 1954, much to chagrin of Phillips, who would often state that the loss of Wolf was his biggest regret.
A listen to this album certainly justifies his feelings.
The Wolf recorded prolifically for Phillips between 1951-1953, as for every side leased to Chess, several more titles were left in the can after each session. The tracks presented here reflect some of that work, and all showcase Howlin’ Wolf’s menacing delivery in his unique approach to
the Blues. His gruff vocals and harp are perfectly complemented by the distorted, overdriven guitar of Willie Johnson and the force of Willie Steele’s drums. This core of instrumentalists was often augmented by various piano pounders such as L.C. Hubert, Ike Turner, and Albert Williams, with the occasional horn section at the ready. The tracks included here were recorded over a ten -month period, from December, 1951 to October, 1952. None are less than brilliant. From the Jump Blues of ‘All In The Mood’ and ‘That’s All Right’ to the emphatic, soulful delivery, on such tracks as ‘Bluebird’, ‘California Blues’, and ‘Decoration Day’, these titles showcase the Wolf as the transitional link between the country blues style and its evolution to the urban blues which would become more fully developed in Chicago later in that same decade.
With his departure from Memphis to the more lucrative Chicago Area, Wolf followed in the footsteps of many other Memphis-area bluesmen. As a result of this migration, from 1954 onwards Phillips shifted his focus to White Rockabilly and Country performers, many of whom used Howlin’ Wolf’s vocal delivery as a blueprint for their own unbridled Sun recordings.
The similarities between Billy Lee Riley’s ‘Red Hot’, Warren Smith’s ‘Miss Froggie’, and Smokey Joe Baugh’s ‘The Signifying Monkey’ to the music The Wolf put down at 706 Union Avenue cannot be denied.
Howlin’ Wolf later attained iconic status, due in no small part to his European tours of the 60’s and subsequent adulation of a new generation of Blues enthusiasts. He passed away on January 6th, 1976, having been ill for several years. Like the man himself, his music remains larger than life, the very definition of soul and expressiveness. There are none better.
(Howlin’ Wolf Is a member of both The Rock And Roll Fame, and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.)
We offer these recordings to you in stunning 96/24 in the original historic mono.