After the midnight creeping of “Back Door Man”, with Howlin’ Wolf as the sexual adventurer who thrills other men’s women and slips away before the break of dawn, Wolf—as if he’s forsaken his wicked ways—celebrates the joys of what we’d today call a “committed relationship”. The restless Wolf has found himself a “pretty baby”, and now he’s howling just for her.
“Howlin’ for My Baby”, also known as “Howlin’ for My Darlin’”, is the most joyful number on Rocking Chair. Its exuberance and humor are irresistible; the darkness that was often at the heart of Wolf’s lupine persona is nowhere to be heard. Wolf’s howl raises shivers on his “Smokestack Lightnin’”; “Howlin’ for My Baby” makes you laugh with delight. His baby just knocks him out, and he’s gotta tell everybody: “Every time she kiss me / She makes the lights go out / Early in the morning / She makes me jump and shout / This mad love she got / Makes me laugh and cry/makes me really know / I’m too young to die / If you hear me howlin’/ Callin’ on my darlin’ / Oooh oooh ooowee!”
Wolf co-wrote “Howlin’ for My Baby” with Willie Dixon, but according to the Wolf biography Moanin’ at Midnight, producer Leonard Chess had a lot to do with the way it turned out. Chess directed Wolf and the band in the studio, giving drummer S.P. Leary the “da-da-da-da-da duh-da” accents that the musicians turned into “one of the most heavily syncopated dance grooves in blues history”.
When Wolf cut the track in July 1959, he’d recently hooked up with Lillie Handley, who came from an Alabama farming family. Unlike Wolf, she was raised in a loving, middle-class home, and was educated. In 1945 she married a local farmer, Nate Jones, had a daughter with him, and then they separated. Jones died in 1952, and Lillie, an attractive young widow then living in Chicago, took up with the blues harp player and singer James Cotton. Wolf fell for her one night when he was playing a gig, and before long Cotton was out of the picture.
Howlin’ Wolf married Lillie in 1964, and they remained together until his death 12 years later. In Moanin’ at Midnight, Evelyn Sumlin, the wife of Wolf’s lead guitarist Hubert, observes, “The years that Lillie and he was together, he got a chance to really enjoy his life and know what life was about”. And that’s what you hear in “Howlin’ for My Baby”—a man who’d experienced poverty, parental abuse, and racism, in the Deep South and elsewhere, had finally found his joy.