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Legend of a towering bluesman

Sanjoy Narayan on Howlin' Wolf and discovering new music that is really very old

Howlin’ Wolf. Photo: Getty Images.
Howlin’ Wolf. Photo: Getty Images.

Till last Friday, my favourite go-to Chicago blues album was 1968’s The Super Super Blues Band, featuring three legends of that genre of blues music—Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. It is a follow-up of an earlier album titled The Super Blues, which featured Little Walter instead of Wolf, both albums released by Checker Records. Musically, the one with Little Walter is probably the better one but fun-wise, nothing comes even close to The Super Super Blues Band.

It’s a rambunctious session by three already famous bluesmen whose jibe-laden banter and friendly arguments pepper the seven songs that they sing or, rather, barely manage to allow each other to sing. I can never get tired of listening to the three of them laugh, poke fun at each other, dare each other to sing a line better, and basically have a blast together.

On one of the tracks, in the middle of a medley of Ooh, Baby and Wrecking My Love Life, Howlin’ Wolf asks Bo: “Hey, Bo Diddley, you know that brand new car you bought that girl?" Bo says: “Yeah?" Wolf says: “Well, I’m drivin’ that car now." Unfazed, Bo says: “But I heard Muddy Waters sold it to you." Wolf says: “No, Muddy Waters bought it for me." Waters says: “Yeah, I sold it to you." Wolf says: “No you bought it for me."

Then they go back to the songs: Wolf’s imposing growl, Waters’ slide guitar and Diddley’s trademark electric lead, in a style that was a precursor of what is now known as blues-rock. There’s never a dull moment on The Super Super Blues Band, a power trio of rivals who were clearly also friends.

As I said, that was my all-time favourite Chicago blues album for years, till last Friday—a sure-shot lifter-upper no matter where or when you were putting it on. I have an old mono version of the first pressing and a stereo version on CD. Sometimes the banter overshadows the music—the female back-up chorus; and the excellent accompanying band: Buddy Guy on bass, Otis Spann on piano, and Hubert Sumlin on guitar. Yet it was always great to listen to that album. It still is, but on Friday I heard something that shot past it in my personal ranking of favourite Chicago blues albums.

I heard The Legendary Sun Performers—Howlin’ Wolf. It’s an album that came out in 1977; a year after Wolf died, but the 16 songs on it were recorded in 1951-52, and most of them were not published till this album was released. It is a mono recording and it has been out of print for years. I got it as a gift after my wife and daughter miraculously found it nestled in a tiny antique and vintage goods shop in a little town in Finland’s Ostrobothnia, where we have a temporary second home.

I had to wait for access to a turntable before I could give it a spin and when I did, it turned out to be a killer. Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf had already acquired popularity and fame in the southern US states of Mississippi and Arkansas by the late 1940s. But Wolf recorded these in 1951 and 1952, before he moved to Chicago and became a towering legend. Towering is a literal description of Wolf: He was over 6ft tall, and weighed around 135kg. A mighty man with a booming voice. As the title suggests, all the tracks on The Legendary Sun Performers—Howlin’ Wolf were recorded at the studio of the Memphis-based Sun Recording Company owned by Sam Phillips, a legendary producer who helped launch the careers of several American musicians such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

By the time Wolf recorded these tracks, he had already begun playing the electric guitar with a band that included names such as Pat Hare (guitar), Junior Parker (vocals) and Willie Johnson (guitar); and his style of the blues—a loose and improvised structure for tunes, almost like jazz—was already taking shape.

Sometimes you discover new music that is really very old. This album is like that. Whether he’s singing classic traditional delta blues such as John Lee “Sonny Boy" Williamson’s Decoration Day or his own Howlin’ For My Baby, Wolf gives it a modern, improvised tweak. His growling vocals in the excellent mono recording hit you like a rush of adrenalin, making the hair on your arms stand. As does his harmonica playing, a style honed under the tutelage of Sonny Boy Williamson II.

The fact that several of the songs were never released till after Wolf’s death in 1976 at the age of 65; that many of the songs have “unknown" as the credits for the instruments on many tracks; those that do have ones such as Ike Turner, who played piano on some of the tunes on Side 2, and Willie Steele, who played drums on some of them—all this adds to the mystique of Howlin’ Wolf’s early music.

Soon after these recordings, he would go on to become one of Chicago blues’ best-known musicians and would influence legions of musicians over several generations. In 1970, he would record The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, jamming with, among others, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Charlie Watts. His awards would include the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Awards.

But this electrifying album that is now my new go-to favourite blues record is like where it all began.


The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Ooh, Baby/Wrecking My Love Life’ by Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from ‘The Super Super Blues Band’

2. ‘Smokestack Lightning’ by Howlin’ Wolf from ‘Reelin’ In The Years Archive’

3. ‘The Red Rooster’ by Howlin’ Wolf from ‘Howlin’ Wolf’

4. ‘Churnin’ Man Blues’ by Memphis Slim from ‘All Kinds Of Blues’

5. ‘Who Do You Love?’ by Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Little Walter from ‘Super Blues’

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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