Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “You’ll be Mine”

The languid, suggestive “Red Rooster” fades to the sound of Howlin’ Wolf’s slide guitar, and what comes next is a mood-changer: the ebullient “You’ll Be Mine”. This Willie Dixon-penned rocker is two minutes and 25 seconds of joy, as Wolf pledges lifelong fidelity to his lover. The song’s structure is basic, verse-chorus with a middle eight break, and the lyrics are simplicity itself: “You so sweet / You so fine / How I wish you were mine / Honey, I’ll be your love / You’ll be mine”. Wolf’s so captivated by his darling that, as long as she’s his, it doesn’t matter what she does or doesn’t do: it’s love as total, unquestioning devotion.

Critic Robert Palmer wrote that the hair on the back of his neck “crackled with electricity” when he heard Wolf perform at a 1965 show. Wolf’s one of a kind voice triggers physical sensations in the listener–thrills and chills–when he’s conveying deep and dark emotion, whether anguish, rage, or terror. But when he’s feeling good, he’s just as affecting, as “You’ll Be Mine” proves. Wolf’s emotional effects, however, are never one-dimensional, and there’s more than simple, unalloyed joy in his performance. He’s also staking claim to this woman, and when he sings, “You’ll be mine”, chopping the possessive pronoun into three syllables, he gives it an edge of control-freak mania.

“You’ll Be Mine” was recorded at Chess Records in December 1961, during a session that produced another track that would end up on Rocking Chair, “Goin’ Down Slow”. Wolf is backed by Henry Gray on piano, Sam Lay on drums, Willie Dixon on bass, and Hubert Sumlin, who turns in a concise, perfectly structured single-string guitar solo. By the early ’60s, after a period of apprenticeship and playing second guitar to the more flamboyant Willie Johnson, Sumlin had come into his own as Wolf’s lead player. Wolf, a combination of father figure and teacher to Sumlin, groomed the much younger musician to assume that role in his band. Their relationship was close, but contentious, and it occasionally erupted into violence when Wolf felt Sumlin was fucking up. But on “You’ll Be Mine” and throughout Rocking Chair, he fully justifies Wolf’s faith in him.

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