Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – “Little Baby”

“Wang Dang Doodle” fades to the sound of Hubert Sumlin’s guitar and Howlin’ Wolf’s promise that the wild party will go “all night long, all night long”. With “Little Baby”, the mood shifts from riotous to playful and affectionate, as Wolf pledges total devotion to his love, in good times and bad. “You go and I’ll come with you little baby / You go and I’ll come with you/you bet your life that I won’t quit you”, he declares. He’ll stick by Little Baby even if she runs afoul of the law and gets locked up: “You go to court / And I’ll come along / You’ll go to jail / And I’ll go your bond / You got time, tell you what I’ll do / Stay outside and wait for you”. But this love affair, and Wolf’s devotion, rests, at least partly, on the cash nexus: “You get paid / I’ll hold the money”; “You bet the horses / And I’ll pick up the dough”.

“Little Baby”, by Willie Dixon, is a well-crafted, catchy pop tune with clever lyrics. Howlin’ Wolf sounds like he’s having a great time with it; unlike other Dixon tunes whose words he sometimes messed up, here he gives the wryly comic lyrics their full due. You’d never guess that the partnership between singer and songwriter was so fraught with anger and resentment.

Wolf chafed at Chess Records’ insistence that he cut so many songs by the company’s chief writer because he preferred to record his own material. He felt that Chess imposed Dixon’s tunes on him because the label’s execs, the tight-fisted Leonard and Phil Chess, didn’t want to pay him royalties on his songs, which he published under his real name, Chester Burnett. On the other hand, the frères Chess were savvy businessman, and Dixon’s commercial blues made them a lot of money. Maybe with a confection like “Little Baby” (released as a single in 1961) they were hoping to repeat a previous success, “My Babe”, a Dixon-penned number that was a number one Billboard hit for blues harp virtuoso Little Walter in 1955. “My Babe” is the obvious prototype for “Little Baby”, but Dixon based that song on an even older one, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “This Train”, from 1930. The man was a crafty recycler, or, if you prefer, a master of the “folk process”.

It’s hard to argue with the quality of Dixon’s material on Rocking Chair, but Wolf’s songs were more personal and cut deeper. There’s little in the rotund bassist’s songbook as emotionally affecting as Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”. Wolf improved Dixon’s songs by imbuing them with his own powerful presence and authority, his distinctive vocal timbre, and idiosyncratic phrasing. And maybe he should’ve shared writing credits on a number of them. According to Wolf’s biographers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Dixon would come up with the basic concept and lyrics of his songs but generally left the arrangements to others. Francis Clay, a drummer who worked with Muddy Waters and Wolf, even claimed, “Everybody wants to credit Willie Dixon as the composer, but he was the lyricist”.

The song’s provenance and Wolf’s attitude toward its writer notwithstanding, “Little Baby” is a bright little gem: simple, straightforward, and utterly endearing. The Rolling Stones covered it on their 1995 release Stripped, their stab at an “Unplugged” album, comprising live tracks and versions of some of their earlier hits re-arranged and recorded live in the studio without overdubs. Their “Little Baby” sounds like they went back to school (i.e., studied Wolf’s version) before they cut it. It has the original’s jaunty spirit, as well as great acoustic guitar work by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and one of Mick Jagger’s least mannered vocal performances since the blues-crazed kid from London became a global superstar.