Howlin’ Wolf – The Great American Songbook

Sometime between 1945 and 1970, jazz and blues were reborn in different styles. The swing era of the late 30s had gone by the way and BeBop was in. Jazz would morph even more with artists like Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk (my favorite), and the great John Coltrane. But Blues is the blues. The only difference between blues of the 1930s and after World War II was the electric guitar. Where Jazz changed its rhythms, modes, and chord structures, blues was still played the same way except it was electric….and now it was played by a bunch of skinny kids from England and was called rock and roll. At the top of the list of songs covered by the Brits are Chuck Berry and none other than Chester A. Burnett, also known as Howlin’ Wolf. His songs, although hits in the 1950s on his own, became hits for the Rolling Stones and Cream. To see his works is to hear the Great American songbook.

To white America, race music, or rhythm and blues, was the devil’s music. Anything played by a black man or woman was not to be sold to white kids in this country – but kids found a way. However, other countries ate it up – particularly England. It all started when Big Mama Thornton’s song, Hound Dog, was recorded by Elvis Presley.

The Beatles and the Stones both had an affinity for Chuck Berry and they both recorded versions of Chuck’s songs but it was Howlin Wolf’s songs which created a more influential legacy. The sound of his voice mixed with the electric guitars influenced two generations of guitar players – the original British invasion players and the players they influenced.

To George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, all three really looked up to men like Berry and Wolf – they were their idols. By listening to the records of the blues greats, the Brits learned how to not only play blues, but also perform and write their own material. Up to this point, most songs were created by songwriters not the singers themselves. In the black community, they wrote and performed their own material. When we begin to look at the great American songbook of Howlin Wolf, not only does one hear one of the most distinct voices in music, but one sees a performer who would influence both James Brown and Mick Jagger in their stage performance as well as songs and how to sing them and write them.
Case in point….Smokestack Lightning

Wolf wrote about half of his songs while Willie Dixon would write many of the others along with Muddy Waters and James Oden. In Wolf’s catalog of songs we find the following classics…
Rockin’ Daddy
I Ain’t Superstitious
Sittin’ On Top Of The World
Worried About My Baby
What A Woman!
Poor Boy
Built For Comfort
Who’s Been Talking?
The Little Red Rooster
Do The Do
Highway 49

Goin’ Down Slow
Killing Floor
I Want To Have A Word With You
Back Door Man
How Many More Years


Dust My Broom

Shake it for Me
and many more….

Wolf’s legacy is not just limited to the quality of songs, but also his showmanship and most of all, his distinctive gravelly voice. After the 1970s arrived and the British Invasion had stopped, the interest in the original artists of the blues faded for a while only to reinvigorate itself with Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Modern blues artists are few and far between. They still continue to play a circuit of blues in the south and big cities. And the odds of you hearing a Howlin’ Wolf song on any given night is pretty good. Whether you’ll hear it in its original style is doubtful as no once since has ever sounded naturally like the great Howlin Wolf,

2 thoughts on “Howlin’ Wolf – The Great American Songbook

  1. I liked reading this tonight. My interview of Wolf in 1968 reveals in his own words why 13 year old Chester Burnett was forced to run away from his sadistic uncle’s home (as transcribed in the first chapter of the Pantheon biography).

    Sam Philips said, upon seeing and hearing Howlin’ Wolf first sing at Sun studios, “This is it, this is for me! It’s where the soul of man goes and never dies!” The latter line is from a spiritual.

    It’s difficult to fully know Wolf’s unique multi-toned voice unless having heard him sing live. It helps to hear the original mono vs .the thinner stereo remixes so often found on collections.

    Wolf was a brilliantly creative, focused, wise and caring man, a “wounded healer” who never stopped improving and growing in skills, knowledge and kindness. He got health care and retirement benefits for his band members and also once kept “rival” Muddy Waters afloat during hard times.

    Happy 100th (6/10) birthday, Wolf. my dear friend, music teacher, mentor and creative collaborator of those iconic images we made (which may be viewed on my site) and the original songs which I hope to get onto some compilation this year. You’re not dead, Wolf… Howl on!~ Sandy Guy Schoenfeld

    PS Re Elvis: Before Hound Dog, there was his first hit, a cover of “(That’s) All Right, Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (pronounced Crew’-duhp) who I played drums with at times and who may indeed be the actual father of Rock & Roll but who’s never been inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame, even in the Influences section.

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