An acoustic guitar and a rocking chair, set against a green background. You could hardly ask for a more nondescript album cover. But that image has become iconic because of the extraordinary music inside the unremarkable packaging. In fact, the album has come to be known by its cover art. Chess Records titled the disk Howlin’ Wolf when the Chicago-based company released it in 1962. But everyone, or at least every serious blues aficionado, knows this collection of 12 tracks by Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett simply as “the rocking chair album” .
Rocking Chair — as I will call it from here on–comprises tracks recorded from 1957 to 1961, most of which were released as singles. But it has the stylistic unity and focus of a recording conceived as a whole. It is one of the greatest blues records ever made, as well as an ur-text for many rock and R&B artists. Here’s a partial list: the Doors, Cream, the Who, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Grateful Dead, the Pointer Sisters, Koko Taylor, the White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, and especially the Rolling Stones, who covered two of its tracks, “Little Red Rooster” and “Little Baby”.
I first heard the album some 40 years ago, as kid in his early teens who had acquired, thanks mainly to the Stones, a passion for the blues. My musical heroes from London couldn’t stop raving about artists like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf. So I dutifully bought albums by all of them: Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill, and Charlie couldn’t be wrong.
They were especially right about Howlin’ Wolf. As much as I loved Berry’s and Diddley’s fantastic rock ‘n roll, and as enthralled as I was by Muddy’s Mississippi Delta-by-way-of-Chicago hoodoo blues, it was the Wolf who stunned me. That voice! Who on earth sang like that! It was a huge voice, raw and raspy and conveying every imaginable human emotion with astonishing intensity and conviction. I was floored, and hooked.
Sam Phillips, the legendary producer who discovered Elvis Presley, actually considered Wolf, whom he first recorded in 1950, to be his greatest discovery. Wolf’s genius drew from an awestruck Phillips this wonderful, oft-quoted burst of poetry: “When I heard him, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”
“I mean”, Phillips added, “he was singing to exactly the thing that we all want to make contact with, and that is the ears of the world. Maybe that’s one person. Maybe it is everybody on the globe. But Wolf had nothing in mind but just to make sure that he conveyed everything that was in his mind, and in his heart, and in his soul when he opened his mouth to sing . . . He was, boy, pouring out his soul!”
Wolf’s soulfulness and his immense communicative power register on every track of Rocking Chair, making the best songs unforgettable and elevating the lesser ones to greatness. All but three were written by Willie Dixon, who also plays bass on most tracks. Two are by Wolf and another, “Goin’ Down Slow”, by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, an obscure bluesman who wrote hits for several leading blues artists. Besides Dixon, the stellar musicians include guitarists Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s closest creative partner, and Willie Johnson, who was using distortion and slashing power chords before rock ‘n rollers picked up on those techniques; drummer Sam Lay, who later played in Bob Dylan’s first electric band; and pianists Henry Gray, Lafayette Leake, and Otis Spann, a gifted musician and singer better known as a Muddy Waters sideman. Wolf plays guitar and country-style harmonica.
Although I’ve listened to Rocking Chair countless times since I first picked it up for $2.50 at E.J. Korvette’s, a now-defunct, New York-based department store chain, I’ve never tired of it. It’s one of those essential records that I keep returning to, and it sounds as fresh, exciting, and deep as ever. In fact, as I’ve aged and gained experience–of love, sex, and mortality–I think I understand and appreciate it more than ever. The blues, after all, is adult music, about grown-up concerns, and hearing Wolf at 14, I couldn’t really grasp it all. The sexual allusions, steeped in the argot of the African American rural South, particularly were beyond me, an Italian-American kid from the urban Northeast. But I understood from my first listening that this was great music, with its hard-rocking rhythms and unadulterated funk, and, above all, Wolf’s voice, which thrilled and amazed, and, to be honest, even scared me a little. It still does.
But what went into that sound, what combination of personal attributes and experience, and social environment? Chester Burnett was born in 1910–just 45 years after the end of slavery–in White Station, a hamlet in the Mississippi hill country. In the account of Wolf’s biographers, James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, African-Americans in this “bleak, unforgiving country” suffered under a “repressive racial caste system” marked by deep poverty, political disenfranchisement, and racist violence. His father Dock was a sharecropper, his mother Gertrude a cook and a housemaid. Wolf’s teenage parents split up when he was a year old and he was left in the care of Gertrude, an abusive, mentally unstable religious fanatic who rejected her son and forced him to fend for himself.
The young Chester Burnett briefly lived with an uncle, who also abused him. At 13, he ran away and found his father, finally enjoying a stable home life with Dock and his family. After he became successful, he returned to Mississippi to visit his mother, who scorned him and rejected the money he offered her, saying he’d earned it playing “the Devil’s music” .
As a youth in the 1920s, Burnett learned the blues from Charlie Patton; a decade later he traveled and performed with two other legendary bluesmen, Robert Johnson and Rice Miller (the latter better known as Sonny Boy Williamson. Wolf’s style originally was traditional country blues, which he played on acoustic guitar and a rack-mounted harmonica. By all accounts, he was a compelling singer from the beginning, with a raw and startlingly powerful voice (Segrest and Hoffman claim that the serrated edge to his booming baritone was the result of several bouts of tonsillitis when he was a child). He also boasted a commanding physical presence–over six feet tall, he carried nearly 300 pounds on his big frame–which he exploited to maximum effect in his uninhibited performances.
Howlin’ Wolf–he adopted his stage name when he was 18–left Mississippi for West Memphis, Arkansas in 1948. He became a full-time musician that year, at age 38, dropping the acoustic guitar for an electric one, and forming his first band. Around the same time, Muddy Waters was in Chicago assembling an urban electric blues band featuring the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter Jacobs. Wolf’s band was, as the critic Robert Palmer observed, “both more primitive and more modern” than the Muddy Waters group, its sound a mix of traditional Delta blues and guitarist Willie Johnson’s proto-rock ‘n roll style and the jazz-influenced piano playing by a sideman known to posterity only as “Destruction”.
Wolf arrived in Chicago in late 1952, after several years of performing in the South, hosting a popular radio show in West Memphis, and recording for Sam Phillips in his Memphis, Tennessee studios (he also cut some sides with a young, up and coming musician and producer named Ike Turner). Unlike other blues artists who came to Chicago by train, Wolf drove from the south to the Windy City in his own car, making quite an impression on an envious Muddy Waters, an encounter depicted in the 2007 film Cadillac Records. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Howlin’ Wolf and Waters, Chess Records’ two greatest blues artists, were rivals. Cadillac Records, exaggerating somewhat, portrayed their rivalry as intense and bitter. In one scene, Wolf threatens to kill Muddy after the latter briefly poaches Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
Their personas and performing styles made manifest the contrasts between the two blues titans. Waters was the Hoochie Koochie Man, a slick superstud. Wolf, though he worked, and sometimes over-worked, the lupine persona, demonstrated greater emotional range. There was sorrow, pain, and vulnerability, but also playfulness and lubricious joy, in his music. Wolf, moreover, was a much more extroverted performer. Waters could be compelling onstage, but, as Robert Palmer observed, “He simply would not go to the lengths Wolf habitually went to”.
Wild man image aside, musicians who played with both Muddy and Wolf say the latter was a more professional band leader who paid his sidemen on time and withheld unemployment insurance and Social Security. He also reportedly was far less deferential to his label’s owners, Leonard and Phil Chess, than Waters. In later years, he bitterly complained about being ripped off by Chess Records. White rock stars he influenced made millions, but financial problems kept him on the road even when he was aging and in poor health. Wolf, who suffered from kidney and heart disease, died from a brain tumor in 1976 at the age of 66.
On the Rocking Chair album, we hear Howlin’ Wolf at the height of his formidable powers. The first track is “Shake for Me”, by Willie Dixon. It’s the blues, all right, but it’s rock ‘n roll, too, up-tempo and tight as a drumhead. The instrumentation is spare, and everything fits together perfectly, with no superfluous business. Hubert Sumlin’s the lead guitarist, and he takes charge from the get-go, kicking off the number in his trademark, angular style.
As guitarist and former Muddy Waters sideman Bob Margolin said, Sumlin “brings out expressive harmonics and percussive accents, yelping slides up and kamikaze slides down”. His taut solo midway through the song bears out Margolin’s assessment. Drummer Sam Lay, beating out a rhythm on cowbell, drives the band, giving the track its momentum.
After Sumlin’s intro, Wolf leaps in, telling a former lover that although she looks fine, “it don’t mean a thing to me”. She went away, “got back a little too late”, and now he’s got “a hip-shaking woman” who “shake like jello on a plate”. Wolf’s vocal is lusty and good-humored, yet there’s something else, maybe a hint of desperation, that makes the brief number (two minutes, 16 seconds) more than just a sexy little rocker. Wolf pleads with this loose-hipped mama to “shake it for me” as if his life depended on it.
But the song conjures up other associations for me. I was lucky enough to have seen Wolf perform, in a Boston club just a few years before his death, and he was still one hip-shakin’ daddy who loved to waggle his big bottom while he roared into the mic. So when I hear “Shake for Me”, that’s the picture that pops into my mind’s eye: Wolf on stage, pouring out his soul, and shaking it for the world.