The teeth on this menacing 1959 masterpiece are as sharp as ever after all these years
Born on June 10th, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi, Chester Arthur Burnett is better known to blues music fans as the almighty Howlin’ Wolf. Standing 6’3” tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Burnett cut a larger-than-life figure with a booming, primal voice that matched his imposing stature.
In his 1997 book The Best of the Blues, music journalist Robert Santelli wrote “Howlin’ Wolf looked mean and intimidating, and he sang blues the same way. His voice was as big and surly as his physique. Only his arch-rival, Muddy Waters, could dominate a song the way that Wolf could. His wasn’t a pretty or warm voice, not by a longshot. But when Howlin’ Wolf belted out the blues, you listened or risked being run over.”
After a tumultuous childhood in Mississippi, a chance meeting with Delta blues legend Charley Patton turned the young Chester Burnett onto the blues. His early performing style mimicked that of Patton’s, and Wolf picked up his harmonica skills from relative-by-marriage, the great Sonny Boy Williamson II. Wolf was also influenced by other popular blues performers of the time, including the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, as well as the music of country singer Jimmie Rodgers. After serving in the army during the early ‘40s, Wolf settled down in West Memphis, Arkansas, farming and playing music on the weekends.
Throughout the 1940s, Burnett performed across the South as both a solo performer and with numerous musicians, including future legends like Johnny Shines, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Son House. Wolf formed a band in the late ‘40s with guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt “Guitar” Murphy (later of Blues Brothers fame), harmonica player Junior Parker, and drummer Willie Steele. He began hosting a 15-minute morning radio show in 1948, playing music and hyping upcoming performances by his band in between farm reports. Wolf changed his style to a more aggressive electric sound and, discovered by talent scout and musician Ike Turner, he began recording with producer Sam Phillips in Memphis in 1951.
Phillips licensed these early recordings to Modern Records and Chess Records, Howlin’ Wolf subsequently scoring hits with both labels. This led to an exclusive deal with Chess Records and a move to Chicago. Wolf was older than many of his contemporaries on the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s, and comparatively better off financially after building a successful career in Memphis over the previous decade. It was in Chicago that Wolf would hook up with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who would be his musical foil throughout the rest of his career.
After enjoying a handful of Top 10 R&B chart hit singles, Chess Records released Howlin’ Wolf’s debut album, Moanin’ in the Moonlight, during the summer of 1959. As was standard at the time, the album was a compilation of singles from the previous eight years. The two earliest tracks on Moanin’ in the Moonlight were “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years,” both recorded in 1951 at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Released as singles by Chess Records, the songs hit #10 and #8, respectively, on the Billboard magazine R&B chart. A third song, “All Night Boogie,” was ostensibly recorded in Memphis in 1953 with an unidentified rhythm section, while the remainder of the album’s tracks were taped in Chicago and produced by either Leonard and Phil Chess or the multi-talented Willie Dixon.
Moanin’ in the Moonlight may be comprised of a disparate collection of 7” singles but, due to Howlin’ Wolf’s immense charisma and his strength as a performer – along with the talent of his backing musicians – the twelve songs come together as a cohesive statement that equals anything released in its wake. Sixty years after its initial release, Moanin’ In the Moonlight still exudes an earthy, primal power that is rooted in the Delta blues but nevertheless manages to foreshadow a future of electrified blues and British blues-rock in the form of acolytes like the Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and Cream.
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf “Moanin’ At Midnight”
Drop the needle on the wax and your ears are immediately assaulted by the Wolf’s first 45, “Moanin’ At Midnight.” A lonesome harp riff opens the track before Wolf’s guttural vocals kick in, growling menacingly above a minimal rhythm track, his voice literally jumping out of the mix and screwing itself into your itchy ears. Just Wolf’s moans rising from the grooves alone are enough to give the listener shivers. By contrast, “How Many More Years,” the single’s B-side and subsequent follow-up hit, is a jaunty bit of juke-joint jive with Ike Turner’s jazzy piano-pounding, Wolf’s Sonny Boy-styled harmonica licks, and guitarist Willie Johnson’s squalls of notes.
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf “Smokestack Lightning”
Released in 1956, Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” displays a remarkable evolution in sound and performance compared to his early singles. Rising to #8 on the R&B chart, the song would later become a bona fide blues standard, recorded by both bluesman like Muddy Water2.s and John Lee Hooker as well as rockers like the Yardbirds, the Who, and the Grateful Dead. Afforded cleaner production courtesy of Chess Studios and featuring the twin guitars of Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams as well as Willie Dixon’s fatback bass and drummer Earl Phillips’ steady-handed timekeeping, Wolf’s vocals soar above the performance with the intensity of a runaway chainsaw. Following a longstanding blues tradition, the song itself is an amalgam of previous records like Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” and Charley Patton’s “Moon Going Down,” Wolf incorporating elements from both on a song that he’d been performing since the early ‘30s.
“Baby How Long,” released as a single in 1954, failed to chart for no good reason as the performance offers a fine, unusually-nuanced vocal turn by the Wolf, the elegant six-string interplay of Sumlin and Williams, and an early appearance by future blues legend Otis Spann, whose tinkling 88s move the song closer to the “rhythm” side of rhythm and blues. Another 1954 track, the haunting “No Place To Go (You Gonna Break My Life)” features Spann’s subtle piano fills and guitarist Lee Cooper’s dark-hued notes alongside a monster vocal performance by Wolf on a song of love and betrayal. Side One closes with “All Night Boogie,” the aforementioned 1953 Memphis recording, the song pairing rowdy instrumentation with a breakneck vocal track and some rockabilly-tinged fretwork, providing enough musical energy to lively up any party.
Side Two of Moanin’ in the Moonlight cranks up the grittiness with one of the Wolf’s most enduring songs, “Evil (Is Goin’ On).” Written by Willie Dixon, Wolf’s reading would inspire later covers of the song by artists as diverse as Luther Allison, Canned Heat, Cactus, Gary Moore, and Monster Magnet, among many others. Contemporary rockers Greta Van Fleet performed the song regularly during the band’s 2017 concerts and a version by Koko Taylor – the “Queen of Chicago Blues” – was featured in the 1987 film Adventures In Babysitting. Wolf was backed on the 1954 session by the Sumlin, Williams, Spann, and Phillips, the singer delivering an extremely powerful and emotional vocal performance accompanied by his fluid harmonica blasts.
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf “I’m Leavin’ You”
Recorded in 1958, “I’m Leavin’ You” reveals late-decade rock ‘n’ roll influences hiding beneath its traditional R&B sound. Wolf is accompanied by a band that included guitarists Sumlin and L.D. McGhee, pianist Hosea Lee Kennard, and drummer S.P. Leary. These musicians create a solid soundtrack behind the singer, with Kennard’s piano leading the charge alongside twangy guitar licks and Wolf’s surprisingly smooth vocals. Wolf’s “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” is an underrated deep cut here, the 1958 recording balanced by a recurring rhythmic pattern and the circular fretwork of guitarists Sumlin and McGhee. Any subtlety here is blow out of the window by Wolf’s growling, sandpaper vocals, which hit your ears like a sonic boom and leave a lasting impression.
A 1954 cover of legendary New Orleans pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ “Forty-Four” may be the only trifle on Moanin in the Moonlight, the performance offering half-hearted vocals, Spann’s muted piano-play, and muddy production that provides little to write home about. Much better is the album-ending 1957 recording of “Somebody In My Home,” which not only showcases a distinctive band that included guitarists Willie Johnson and Otis “Smokey” Smothers, bassist Alfred Elkins, and saxophonist Adolf “Billy” Duncan playing alongside pianist Kennard and drummer Phillips, but also the perfection of Wolf’s Jimmie Rodgers-inspired, semi-falsetto “howl” that takes the vocal performance onto a whole other level. The song itself is standard Chicago blues fare with a shuffling rhythm and some tasty guitar playing.
A 2016 vinyl reissue of Moanin’ In the Moonlight by the Spanish archival Vinyl Lovers label puts a spit-shine on the album’s original mono sound and adds four bonus songs from the period to expand the album to sixteen ass-whoopin’ tracks. The 1957 song “Rockin’ Daddy” features the same band as “No Place To Go,” but displays a different facet of the musicians’ talents with a jazz-flecked romp that relies on Lee Cooper’s stunning guitarplay and drummer Earl Phillips’ light-hearted fills to drive Wolf’s unusually jovial vocals.
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf “Going Back Home”
The 1956 track “Going Back Home” features an exotic, syncopated rhythm that runs like a river beneath Wolf’s raging vocals and Sumlin’s trembling guitar. “I’ll Be Around” is a 1954 recording with Wolf’s band from that era, the song offering another strong vocal performance, wailing harmonica, and livewire fretwork. Dating from 1956, “So Glad” fuses jazzy instrumentation with Chicago blues tradition to great effect, Wolf’s uncharacteristically joyful vocals matched with jaunty harpwork that mimics the sentiments of the song’s title.
The status of Moanin in the Moonlight as a work of art has only grown through the years, with the album enjoying numerous reissues in various formats. Rolling Stone ranked it at #153 on the magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (i.e. the “blue book”), editor Dave Marsh wrote “Wolf created his music out of the staple emotions of the blues – fear raised to a keen edge, lust as something to wallow in, introspection so withering it sneers at pity and laughs at scorn. And his ability to communicate ideas as subtle as these is already present in his first recordings…” Robert Santelli, who ranked the album at number five in his The Best of the Blues, writes that “often Wolf’s voice distorted and squirmed like a snake caught in the midday sun. It was mean-spirited. Sometimes it was ugly. But it always possessed the kind of emotional realism that has made the blues an accurate reflection of the human spirit.”
The album has also proven to be influential far beyond its commercial returns at the time, inspiring blues and rock artists for decades after its release. Nashville-based bluesman and music journalist Ted Drozdowski, in comments to Rock and Roll Globe, says “it’s impossible to select just one essential Chicago blues album, but if I was forced to do that, Moanin’ in the Moonlight would be my choice. While Muddy Waters developed the ensemble sound that became the foundation of Chicago blues, Wolf perfected it with these songs and the addition of “Killing Floor,” taking the music from its Delta roots to fully orchestrate it with multiple guitars, piano, and horns, using counterpoint and multiple rhythmic and melodic lines in a sophisticated way that keeps these tunes eternally fresh – and puts most of their modern interpreters, who often fail to grasp the progressive elements that make Wolf’s music great, to shame. When this album came out in 1959, it was the cutting edge. These performances pointed the way to for improvisational blues-rock outfits like Cream. And they swing.”
Bluesman Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost also found inspiration in Howlin’ Wolf’s debut LP. “Like most people around my age,” he says, “I was turned onto the blues through bands like the Stones and Yardbirds when they emerged. I always intently studied the credits on every record that ever I bought. I figured out that the guy that wrote “Smokestack Lightnin’” on the Yardbirds Having A Rave Up album was Chester Burnett. Upon further research, I came to realize that he was in fact Howlin’ Wolf. I was further enlightened when I saw him on Shindig! in 1965 where he was introduced by the Stones and performed “How Many More Years.” I wasn’t able to actually find any of his albums until around 1969 when I haphazardly found Moanin’ in the Midnight in a head shop downtown. It was a revelation. As far as the blues are concerned, the Stones and Yardbirds may have opened the door for me, but Moanin’ in the Moonlight kicked it off of the hinges.”
Wolf’s future collaborations with songwriter, musician and producer Willie Dixon would lead to the stellar 1962 self-titled album (a/k/a The Rockin’ Chair Album), another collection of singles that yielded such blues standards as “Little Red Rooster,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful,” and “Back Door Man” and would cement the singer’s legacy as one of the greatest Chicago bluesmen. Howlin’ Wolf was part of the inaugural class of the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He would enjoy a career that lasted a quarter-century, until his untimely death in 1976 at 65 years old. It all began 60 years ago, however, Moanin’ in the Moonlight one of a handful of truly seminal albums in the history of the blues.
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf Moanin’ In The Moonlight (full album)