Saturday, October 17, 2009

October 17: Howlin' Wolf, "Howlin' Wolf"

Artist: Howlin' Wolf
Album: Howlin' Wolf
Year: 1962
Label: Chess

Everyone has their influences, and everyone at some point or another, takes from that influence. Whether it is a style, a phrase, or even an entire song, there is some point at which every musician reveals the sound(s) he loves. In the case of a majority of the most important rock bands of the late 1960's and early 1970's, there is one musician whose influence is unparalleled. Possessing one of the most distinctive voices in history, as well as one of the most unique personalities ever, one bluesman remains in a class all his own, Howlin' Wolf. With songs that have been covered by everyone from The Doors to The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin to PJ Harvey, the sound and style of Howlin' Wolf forever changed the blues-based rock genre. From his wild stage antics to his often risqué lyrics, Howlin' Wolf was truly a one-of-a-kind musician, and there are two distinct phases of his career. Before signing to Chess Records, Howlin' Wolf had a far more angry and aggressive sound, and then once with Chess, he was provided with a Chicago backbeat band that took a bit of the edge off the songs and made them blues classics. By far his finest musical moment, as well as one of the most influential albums ever is his self-titled 1962 debut for Chess Records, and nearly every song on the album is instantly recognizable as both a blues and rock classic.

Not only was Howlin' Wolf one of the most imposing musical forces in history, but at well over six feet tall and three hundred pounds, he was similarly one of the most imposing figures on stage. His stage presence is legendary, as his overly aggressive and often eccentric antics quite literally scared concert-goers on a regular basis. Whether he was driving his motorcycle around the stage or simply the power of his booming voice, Howlin' Wolf represents the darker, more aggressive side of Chicago blues. In many ways, Howlin' Wolf represents one extreme of the Chicago blue style, while on the other end of the spectrum is fellow blues icon, Muddy Waters. Though the two both play in the same style, the manner in which they present the sound could not be more different, yet it proves that even within a sub-genre, there are countless ways in which one can perform the music. After being signed for a few sessions in the early 1950's, Howlin' Wolf bounced from label to label, recording single sides for nearly a decade. Finally, after a handful of hit singles, Howlin' Wolf was finally given the time to record a full length album. Along with this recording time, he was also given what would prove to be one of the most important gifts of his career: an introduction to a younger songwriter who went by the name Willie Dixon.

Nearly every song on Howlin' Wolf (also know as "The Rocking Chair Album") was penned by Dixon, aside from one song by Jimmy Oden, as well as one written by Wolf himself. The collaboration between Wolf and Dixon remains among the greatest musical pairings ever, and each of them became icons though their work together. By the time he was introduced to Howlin' Wolf, Dixon had already established himself as a major force at Chess Records, having written hits for everyone from Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters to Little Walter and Chuck Berry. While the songs he had previously written remain classics, upon meeting Howlin' Wolf, it was clear that Dixon had found the perfect voice for his gritty, somewhat suggestive lyrics. Howlin' Wolf contains some of Dixon's finest work, and songs like "Back Door Man," "The Red Rooster (AKA Little Red Rooster)," and "Spoonful" remain some of the most legendary songs in music history. While these songs were made more famous later by rock bands covering them, it is here on Howlin' Wolf that they were first presented to the world. The fact that nearly every song on the album remains a moving force in modern music serves as a testament to the phenomenal writing ability that lived within Willie Dixon. While it goes without saying that the lyrics penned by Dixon are absolutely fantastic, it is the style and sound of Howlin' Wolf that makes them into true classics.

Search through music history all you like, the fact of the matter is, there has never been another voice that even remotely resembles that of Howlin' Wolf. As gritty as it is menacing, Howlin' Wolf has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history. Whether singing a slow, winding song like "Back Door Man" or a more fast paced, rocking gem like "Shake For Me," Wolf's performance on every song is nothing short of stunning. Though most people are familiar with The Doors' take on "Back Door Man," after experiencing the original version found on Howlin' Wolf, one gains an entirely new appreciation for the song, and Wolf's vocals and the moods he creates on the track are nothing short of extraordinary. This, in essence, is exactly what makes Howlin' Wolf so amazing and unique; it is the fact that with his distinctive voice, every song he sings sounds like nothing else ever, yet perfectly encapsulates everything that one needs to make a perfect blues song. It is also due to the manner with which he delivers the vocals that each song fully realizes all of the lyrical subtexts and subtleties that Willie Dixon so perfectly crafted. Again, the pairing of Dixon and Wolf remain largely unequaled to this day, and the magic between the two is perhaps no more apparent then on Howlin' Wolf.

Though he is often seen as a "second tier" blues musician, the truth of the matter is, there are few artists who have progressed their genre and have as long lasting impact as Howlin' Wolf. From The Rolling Stones' cover of "Little Red Rooster" to Stevie Ray Vaughan's take on "Tell Me," the influence of Howlin' Wolf can be found all across the musical spectrum. Whether it is the manner in which he crafted the songs, or the swagger than the brought to the lyrics, there are truly few musicians who have had as much impact on later artists then Howlin' Wolf. Taking the brilliant lyrics of Willie Dixon and injecting them with a mesmerizing and stunningly unique vocal sound, Howlin' Wolf is a blues masterpiece of epic proportions. Though Howlin' Wolf had already had a handful of successful singles, it was on his first full length album that his true genius and prowess became evident to the entire world. Though the bands he formed in his later years rank among the finest blues bands ever, it is the more simple and stripped down arrangements found on Howlin' Wolf that represent everything that makes him one of the most well respected musicians to this day. Though it is truly impossible to find a Howlin' Wolf song that is anything less than phenomenal, there is no doubt that his finest musical moment, and one of the pivotal moments in music history is represented on his magnificent 1962 album, Howlin' Wolf.

Standout tracks: "The Red Rooster," "Spoonful," and "Back Door Man."

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