HOWLIN WOLF – ” This is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either “

Posted: January 31, 2020 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Jim Sclavunos of Grinderman says: “It is one of rock history’s more baldly self-explanatory album titles; and any lingering doubt as to the artist’s disdain for the project is abundantly clarified by Howlin Wolf’s subsequent summary of the album as “dog shit”. Howlin’ Wolf was one of the first Mississippi Delta blues musicians to make the transition from acoustic to electric guitar, and he led one of the first all-electric blues combo in fifties; but This Howlin’ Wolf’s album finds him well outside his comfort zone.

The same session musicians from classic Electric Mud made this album, so it’s just as good.

The acclaimed bassist Phil Upchurch played with jazz greats and the blues legends BB King and John Lee Hooker, and even starred on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. But he counts as his strangest sessions the two he did in the late 60s with Muddy Waters (Electric Mud) and on The Howlin’ Wolf Album, for Chess Records subsidiary Cadet Records.

In 1968, Marshall Chess, the innovative son of label owner Leonard Chess, placed Waters, and then Wolf, in a setting of psychedelic sounds. Chess Jr wanted “to get them out with the hippie crowd”, according to Upchurch, and brought in the Chicago psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection as the backing band. The results in both cases were controversial. Waters described his album as “dogs__t”, while the Wolf fell out with his fellow musicians.

The blues legend born Chester Arthur Burnett, does his best to sing the Delta blues over a backdrop of wah-wah and fuzz effects. Singer and band certainly synch on a new version of ‘Smokestack Lightning’, a song Wolf used to sing as a boy watching the trains go by in the Mississippi town where he was born, on 10th June 1910. His old musical partner Hubert Sumlin, who played on the magnificent 1959 Chess album Moanin’ In The Moonlight, joins him on this track, recorded in November 1968.

Wolf’s own composition ‘Evil’, in which the blues man sounds like a ghost of Tom Waits’ future, growling and rasping his way through some potent lyrics. Waits, incidentally, was inspired by Wolf’s “otherworldly singing.

The band members, aware of Wolf’s status, did their best to make The Howlin’ Wolf Album work, as they recorded new versions of some of his most memorable songs, including ‘Spoonful’, ‘Red Rooster’, ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ and ‘Built For Comfort’. Gene Barge, who was well known in the music world as Daddy G – he had played on ‘Rescue Me’ by Fontella Bass and was the man who persuaded Chess to take a chance on the young Buddy Guy – played electric saxophone on the album. He recalled, “Howlin’ Wolf didn’t like it, didn’t want to do it. He would cuss and fuss the whole time. He questioned the fact that we were taking him out of his orbit. He was a traditional blues boy, with traditional music, and he was concerned about whether he could do it or not. We told him, ‘Regardless of all this stuff, don’t change your style. We’ll just drop this stuff in all around you.’”

Howlin Wolf’s unease about the project prompted a bold marketing gamble by Marshall Chess, who addressed the issue on the album’s sleeve. The design, with black text on a white background, stated: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”

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