From Mississippi to Illinois came one of the scariest blues singers who ever lived
Born 10th June 1910, Chester Arthur Burnett would eventually become one of the most important and influential blues artists who migrated from the rural South to Chicago. In the 1930’s, he met the likes of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, from whom he took inspiration as a young man, even travelling with Johnson at one time, along with Sonny Boy Williamson. By the 1950’s, he was brought to the attention of Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, who was so impressed with Burnett’s talent that he asked the singer to record at his studio. Phillips then leased the recordings to the Chess Brothers in Chicago, who were themselves so blown away that they managed to convince Burnett, or Howlin’ Wolf as was then known, to relocate north.
Now there have been countless compilations over the decades, some more authoritative than others, especially in the CD age, but if you want to hear the Wolf as he was originally presented, all those many years ago, one need look no further than his debut album, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, released in 1959 on the Chess label.
Most of the songs that he is famous for are here, from “Evil”, to the classic “Smokestack Lightnin’,” and consist of some of his earliest recordings in Memphis to when he moved to Chicago.
Beginning with one of his earliest recordings, from 1951, “Moanin’ At Midnight” justifies Phillips’ excitement when he first heard him, whose vocals came with a built-in fuzz box which no amount of engineering could EQ. “How Many More Years,” another early Memphis recording, proves that Wolf’s style and approach was firmly in place, i.e. electric guitar, piano, harmonica, shuffling beat, and of course Burnett’s own spooky voice.
“Smokestack Lightnin’” is where the singer earns his moniker, literally howling his way through what remains one of the most unique blues performances ever captured on tape (and if anyone can explain what the actual title refers to please contact me).
Hubert Sumlin, Otis Spann and Willie Dixon (on guitar, piano and bass respectively) make an appearance on the pleaful “Baby How Long,” followed by the harmonica driven “No Place To Go” and “All Night Long,” both of which were probably live staples at the time.
Willie Dixon’s “Evil” is given an almost supernatural rendering thanks to Wolf’s uncanny, dramatic delivery, while Sumlin shows off his instrumental skills on “I’m Leavin’ You” and “Moanin’ For My Baby,” establishing himself as a natural foil for Wolf’s larger than life larynx. The bitter “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” has Wolf wailing for his mistreatin’ mama, followed by the classic “Forty-Four,” a song that he would continue to perform throughout the remainder of his career. Last track, “Somebody In My Home” continues the oft expressed topic of the man being cuckolded by his woman, a theme which Wolf himself appeared to be almost obsessed with.
Whether any of this material would have quite the same affect on the listener if it had have been recorded in the modern digital age is debatable. Thanks to the recording technology of the day, these songs have an ancient, otherworldly quality to them, more than well suited to the music itself and where it came from. In contrast many blues albums nowadays come off as too clean and sterile. But it isn’t just Wolf and his powerful voice – Hubert Sumlin also deserves special mention, whose guitar playing is always fluid, yet gritty, as if he is attempting to match some of Wolf’s own vocal technique by creating a distortion all his own through the amp, something quite unique for the 1950s.
As any blues obsessive will know, Moanin’ In The Moonlight is hardly definitive, although that should not disqualify it entirely from one’s collection. And if you can find it on vinyl, then even better.