The folks at Universal have tried very hard to make the reissue of The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions a class act, and they have succeeded admirably. A better tape source was found for the original album, and it was beautifully remastered. Three tracks from the follow-up, London Revisited, have been remixed and are included on the first CD. The second disc contains unreleased bonus tracks, many of which are alternate takes or mixes, and a few of which contain rehearsal and dialogue between Howlin’ Wolf and Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. The packaging is gorgeous and the liner notes by Bill Dahl are a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read. The only difficulty is that the music inside doesn’t always match up with the august nature of the packaging.
Wolf was shipped to London, along with his guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, to participate in sessions with some of the leading blues-influenced rock musicians of the day, most notably Eric Clapton. Clapton, Wyman, Watts, Sumlin, and Wolf, together with Jeffrey Carp on harmonica, pretty much comprised the band on the date, though there are several other guest appearances. Keyboards by Steve Winwood and, on some tracks, Ian Stewart, were overdubbed later, as were horns on a couple of tracks. Wyman and Watts apparently weren’t on hand for the start of the sessions, and Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, John Simon, and Phil Upchurch appear on two or three other tracks in their stead. As producer Norman Dayron relates in the liner notes, he hadn’t counted on the fact that these rock stars would be so intimidated by Wolf’s presence. The false start to “Little Red Rooster”, where Clapton exhorts Wolf to play acoustic along with his electric work on the number to help him get the right feeling, is indicative of this problem. The final result is less than spectacular; while Clapton, Watts, and Wyman are clearly into the performance, Wolf himself sounds less than inspired, and Steve Winwood’s overdubbed piano is nothing short of distracting. It is telling that the piece ends on a fadeout.
There are some wonderful moments on The London Sessions, including a version of “Do the Do” that gels nicely, a chugging “I Ain’t Superstitious” with Ringo and Voorman holding down the rhythm section, and some fine guitar work from Clapton on “Wang Dang Doodle”, the original album’s closer.
The alternate takes and remixes don’t really add that much to the original recording, nor do they provide any particularly revealing insights into the album’s creation. They are nice to have, but not essential for anyone but the completist. In fact, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions cannot be recommended as an essential Howlin’ Wolf recording. Though the performances are interesting from a rock fan’s standpoint, the pairing of Wolf with British musicians who were inspired by him resulted in a session that was not particularly noteworthy from a blues perspective. This was usually true of such projects, and in the case of Howlin’ Wolf, who was not in good health at the time of these sessions and died only a few years later, it seems particularly so. Those seeking a comprehensive collection of Wolf’s great recordings would do better to seek out the three-disc Chess box or the single disc His Best: Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. On the other hand, for those who are deeply into the British blues-rock of the late ’60s, are unfamiliar with Howlin’ Wolf, or prefer rock to straight blues, this attractive two-CD set will probably fill the bill.