As attentive and long-time readers of this blog will know, I’ve been reading a book: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (2008) by Ted Gioia. I’ve referenced it in several posts, starting with Blues, Women & Guitar back on June 24.
Well, I’m still reading it.
Yes, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that here it is October 3rd, and I have yet to finish this book. Not exactly high praise. But please do believe me when I say that it is an excellent book, very well written, full of fascinating detail and absorbing stories. It’s just not a book like, let’s say, one of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels (and I’ve read them all) that never failed to draw me in on page one and not let me put it down for too long until I’d read every word. Delta Blues is not a detective/mystery book, but it is very easy to keep within reach and dip into when time allows.
So, the other day I read the chapter entitled “Smokestack Lightnin'” about Howlin’ Wolf. I learned that he was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. I learned that he didn’t cut his first recordings until he was 40 years old and he did them for Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service studios in Memphis, TN. I learned about his move to Chicago and his work for Chess Records. I learned much, much more in those 35 pages.
Most of all, I learned that, up till then, I’d really known very little about Howlin’ Wolf.
I had known that he was a legendary and influential Blues singer with a very gravelly voice befitting his name. I had known that he did the song “Spoonful,” covered in the 1960’s by Cream, and I had known he did a fine version of “Sitting On Top Of The World,” the 1930 Mississippi Sheiks song that has been covered by a startlingly wide variety of artists.
That was about it. Even more sadly, beyond those two songs, I didn’t know his music.
I set about to rectify the situation.
I went immediately to my standard reference source for Blues recordings: The All Music Guide to The Blues. In the entry for Howlin’ Wolf on pg.258, Cub Koda writes: “In the history of the Blues, there has never been anyone quite like the Howlin’ Wolf. No one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of their wits.”
In the reviews of 25 Howlin’ Wolf albums, the one called His Best (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection) got the nod as the best single-disc collection available. But a visit to Amazon revealed that Chess had updated that 1997 CD in 2007 with: Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection and all the reviewers there gave this disc 5-stars. This was the one I wanted.
After dinner Saturday night, I headed off to Portsmouth, NH and soon arrived at my favorite music store on the planet: Bullmoose Records. I walked directly to the large, well-stocked Blues section, found the Howlin’ Wolf CDs and… they didn’t have it. I checked again: nope. They had five CDs but not the one I was looking for. Bummer.
I had no choice. I was on a mission. Bullmoose had let me down. Next stop: Best Buy.
And there it was. In their paltry, pathetic Blues section, right there in the front of one of the racks, like it was waiting for me, sat one copy of Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection. $12.99 on the credit card later and we were going home. Mission accomplished.
This is an incredible CD. It contains 20 songs starting with “Moanin’ At Midnight” from 1951, ending with “Killing Floor” from 1964 and includes “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” (Wasn’t that one on 1968’s Truth, the first album by Jeff Beck? Wasn’t “Back Door Man” covered by the Doors on their first album in 1967?)
The track listings give writing credits to Chester Burnett for eight songs and to Blues songwriting giant Willie Dixon for ten. Band members include pianist Otis Spann, guitarists Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon on bass and Sam Lay on drums. (Hey – that’s the drummer who played in the band behind Bob Dylan when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965.)
(Sidetrack: As I wrote that last sentence the 2010 season of the Boston Red Sox came to an unfortunately early end with an 8-4 victory over the playoff-bound New York Yankees.)
The music is not easy to describe. Yes, there is that voice that Mark Humphrey describes in the CD’s liner notes as: “like shattered glass being dragged over hot asphalt.” Yes, some of these songs are not based on the standard 12-bar Blues progression; they are instead musically built around a single, repeated guitar riff, harmonically going for three minutes on one chord. But track after track, this music sets the mood, lays down a groove, puts feet to tapping and hips to swinging, and when it fades out after those three minute are up, leaves you wanting more.
This is, simply, exceptionally good music. And, returning to Mr. Humphrey, it is the Blues: “as disturbing and joyful and real as any ever recorded.”
So, here I am: a brand new Howlin’ Wolf fan, spreading the news. Check it out. Highly Recommended.
Better late than not at all.