Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf – ‘Back Door Man’

Howlin’ Wolf’s Rocking Chair album is basically a collection of sex songs, and “Back Door Man”, written for Wolf by Willie Dixon, is the most outrageous of them all. On other tracks Wolf praises a woman who “shakes like jelly on a plate” and pleads for just a “spoonful” of his woman’s “precious love”. “Down in the Bottom” finds him climbing out the window of a woman’s bedroom and hauling ass to escape her angry boyfriend.

With “Back Door Man”, Wolf’s up to the same tricks, but with a different manner of egress, as the stud who services other men’s wives and slips out the back exit before they come home: “When everybody trying to sleep / I’m somewhere making my midnight creep / Every morning the rooster crow / Something tell me I got to go / I am a back door man”. He revels in his sexual buccaneering, and his ability to get away with it, crowing, “The men don’t know / But the little girls understand”.

With “Back Door Man”, Willie Dixon once again re-worked older material; the title figure is something of a southern archetype who appeared in songs by country blues singers like Charley Patton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Blind Willie McTell. Sara Martin, a popular recording artist of the 1920s, declared that “every sensible woman got a back door man” in her “Strange Loving Blues”.

Sexuality is central to the blues, whether the singer is a man or woman. Early in the history of the genre, virtually all blues singers were men, and according to Giles Oakley in his The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, their principal theme was “the sexual relationship”. Other themes, such as catching a train and leaving town, money woes and general dissatisfaction with life, says Oakley, “sooner or later revert to the central concern”.

Angela Davis, in her Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, connects the emergence of the blues to the aftermath of slavery and the limited freedom then available to formerly enslaved black people. “With a lineage consisting largely of spirituals and work songs, the blues was the first musical genre to reflect black people’s experience of ‘freedom’ in the U.S.”, Davis observes. Emancipation allowed blacks, formerly confined to the plantations where they worked, to move from place to place, and for the first time they also could determine their sexual relationships. “Consequently, themes of travel and sexuality permeate the blues”, Davis notes.

Sexual candor and provocative sexual imagery are to the blues what piety and spiritual fervor are to gospel music. You might say that the blues is as fervent about sex as gospel is about the divine. This unabashed and unapologetic carnality delighted black audiences, and also white folks turned off by bland, sexless mainstream pop music. When, as in the ’50s and early ’60s, white American pop was clotted with moon-June-spoon banalities, the blues (and its offspring R&B and rock ‘n roll) could be counted on to supply the body heat, as well as bluntly unsentimental attitudes toward sexual relationships. “Back Door Man” reminds us that despite the mythology of romantic love and “till death do us part”, men and women do step out on their partners, and that the frisson of transgression often makes the sex hotter.

In 1967, four blues- and Wolf-loving white boys in Los Angeles, California covered “Back Door Man” on their debut album. The Doors liked to call themselves “erotic politicians”, and Dixon’s song served them well as a manifesto for their breaking-through-boundaries stance. Drummer John Densmore recalled that when the band played the “deeply sexual” number in their shows, it “got everyone moving”.

Howlin’ Wolf cut “Back Door Man” in 1960 (Chess Records released it as the b-side of “Wang Dang Doodle”), backed by the supergroup that gives him such superb support on many of the Rocking Chair tracks: the indispensable Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar, Freddie Robinson on second guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on upright double bass, and Fred Below behind the drum kit. Wolf fully inhabits the back door man persona. There’s no sweet-talk or gentle seduction in that raw, commanding voice, but what he offers is much more alluring: the promise of illicit midnight pleasure.