Monday, January 16, 2012
Moanin' In The Moonlight - Howlin' Wolf
Moanin' In The Moonlight
This is a 1986 re-issue of the album originally released by Chess as LP 1434. It was part of a bunch of Chess albums reissued by MCA in the 1980s with the original front cover art but new back covers although they generally reprint the original liner notes. I chose this album for today's post to honor the blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin who died on December 4th of last year. Sumlin did have a solo career but he is most famous for his work with the great Howlin' Wolf. Like a lot of white kids of my generation I learned about Howlin' Wolf second hand via the interpretations of his work by British bands in the 1960s which is a sorry commentary on the undervaluing of African-American culture in this country for so long. In my case it was the Yardbirds and their classic cover of "Smokestack Lightnin'" which I found quite thrilling when I heard it as a teenager. By then the man who wrote it, Chester Burnett (aka Howlin' Wolf) was already dead. This was his first album, but it is basically a compilation album of his singles from the 1950s. Sumlin plays guitar on all but three of the twelve tracks. The album begins with the classic single from 1951 "Moanin' At Midnight" b/w "How Many More Years" which is among Howlin' Wolf's most celebrated recordings. Both sides were hit singles on the R&B charts and deservedly so, the blues don't get any grittier or more exciting than this. Ike Turner plays piano on the latter cut. I think the Wolf's 1956 recording of "Smokestack Lightnin'" is a little less exciting than the Yardbirds' cover, but there is no doubt that the Wolf's powerful vocal blows Keith Relf away. This is my favorite song on the album and it was also a hit single. "Baby How Long" dates from 1954 and features some dynamic piano from Otis Spann. It is a swinging number that really gets me going. "No Place To Go" is also from 1954 and it ought to be familiar to Led Zeppelin fans since they "borrowed" it for their song "How Many More Times" on their debut album. The Wolf's vocal is full of desperation as he bemoans his woman's treachery and his unhappy fate. It is a very powerful song with an insistent pounding riff that makes it utterly unforgettable. "All Night Boogie" from 1953 is a smoking number with frenetic harmonica playing by the Wolf and fast paced guitar lines from Sumlin and Jody Williams. It rocks as hard as any song I've ever heard from this period. Side two opens with "Evil" which was released on the flip side of "Baby How Long" in 1954. It was originally called "Evil Is Goin' On" on the single. It features more terrific piano work from Spann and a passionate vocal from the Wolf. "I'm Leavin' You" is listed as a 1959 recording on the album, but I've seen the single listed as a 1958 release in many Howlin' Wolf discographies. Whenever it came out, it is another excellent song with more woman trouble in the lyrics and some biting guitar work from Sumlin and L. D. McGhee. 1958's "Moanin' For My Baby" has a hypnotic guitar riff courtesy of Sumlin and Jody Williams and a vocal from the Wolf that effortlessly soars when he turns up the heat. "I Asked For Water" from 1956 features some of the most evocative lyrics on the album as the Wolf describes his lover's ill-treatment of him. "Forty Four" was released in 1954. It has a simple riff with martial drumming that drives it along. The album concludes with 1957's "Somebody In My Home." It is a moody, slow blues with another powerful vocal from the Wolf in which he sings of his recurrent theme of an unfaithful lover. Howlin' Wolf had one of the most remarkable voices in pop music. He combined the grace and passion of Muddy Waters with the range and the lupine roar of Captain Beefheart without ever sounding gimmicky or contrived. His music has so much feeling and power, it gives me goosebumps. I wish I could have seen him live, his shows must have been amazing. This is a flawless record, it basically functions as a best-of for his work in the 1950s. I highly recommend it, this is classic stuff, even if you don't like the blues very much, this transcends its genre. Recommended for Yardbirds fans who wish Keith Relf had a stronger voice.