Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “The Red/Little Red Rooster”

“Shake for Me” is a rocking blues that packed dance floors–on Chicago’s South Side and elsewhere–when Chess released it as a single in 1961. “The Red Rooster”, with its slower tempo and down home lyrics, takes the listener back to the origins of Howlin’ Wolf’s music, the Mississippi Delta. “I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day”, Wolf announces. He repeats the line, and then informs us that the titular fowl “keeps everything in the barnyard upset in every way”.

“The Red Rooster”–also known as “Little Red Rooster”–has attained classic status in the blues repertoire. The song is credited to Willie Dixon, but the rooster–a symbol of male sexual potency–strutted his stuff in the blues long before Dixon and Wolf recorded it, in 1961. Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf’s mentor and running buddy in the 1920s, released his “Banty Rooster Blues” in 1929. Memphis Minnie’s 1936 “If You See My Rooster” also seems a likely model for Dixon, her lyric “If you see my rooster, please run him on back home” nearly identical to Dixon’s “If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home”.

And why does the red rooster need to get back home? Well, “there ain’t no peace in the barnyard” since he’s been gone. Puzzling, no? How can this rooster, who’s too lazy to crow, keep the barnyard upset and be its peacekeeper, too? “Watch out strange kin people”, Wolf warns, “the little red rooster’s on the prowl”. Who are these strange kinfolk, and why should they be wary of this prowling yard bird? Good question. All I can say is that the elusive (and allusive) quality of the lyrics is a big part of the song’s fascination.

“The Red Rooster”/ “Little Red Rooster” has been covered by such disparate artists as Sam Cooke, the Grateful Dead, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Bryan Adams. The best-known cover, though, is by the Rolling Stones, recorded in 1964 at Chess Records in Chicago, in homage to Wolf and Dixon. The Stones closely follow Wolf’s original, with Brian Jones on slide guitar and Mick Jagger turning in a nuanced vocal with an undertone of sexual menace (not bad for a 21-year-old English boy). If they can’t equal Wolf, theirs nonetheless is a more than credible interpretation.

Sam Cooke, no blues purist, pushed the song in a different direction: urban rhythm and blues. His smooth vocal timbre and jazzy phrasing, the swinging rhythm, and Billy Preston’s assertive organ accompaniment take the little red rooster out of the barnyard and drop him down in the big city. You can decide whether he survived the journey intact.

But Howlin’ Wolf–backed by Dixon, Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Johnny Jones on piano and Sam Lay on drums–indisputably owns “The Red Rooster”. Wolf’s singing is his typically powerful meld of technical mastery and intense feeling. There’s drama, mystery, and sex in it. He punctuates his vocal lines with slide guitar accompaniment that is spare and un-showy, and all the more effective for it.

You might think that “The Red Rooster” is a straightforward, simple piece. But when Wolf and a roster of top British rock stars recorded it for Howlin’ Wolf: The London Sessions in 1970, Eric Clapton at first fumbled Wolf’s slide part. The album’s engineer captured the studio chatter of the American blues giant and his English acolytes, and it’s a kick to hear Clapton, dubbed “God” by his fans, entirely at sea, admitting “I doubt if I can do it” without Wolf showing him how.