Until I bought this record about three years ago – a brand new reissue of his second album, with a gorgeous new cover but no hint of the iconic “rocking chair” by which the record is usually referenced – I didn’t have any Howlin’ Wolf albums, per se. And yet, I had a lot of Howlin’ Wolf on my mix tapes, so … where’d that come from?
I’ve still gotta go back and write about a Willie Dixon box set, The Chess Box, that has been in my collection since the late ’80s. Unlike a lot of boxes, it focused more on the songs than on who sang them, and so in a box with 36 tracks, eight of them are performed by Howlin’ Wolf … and I was so enamored of his voice and style that several of those ended up on those late-era mix tapes.
Of course, he wasn’t born as Howlin’ Wolf. He was born Chester Arthur Burnett, and is, to the best of my knowledge, the most famous musician ever named for a resident of Albany Rural Cemetery, President Chester Alan Arthur. As an amateur Albany historian, I somehow find this little tidbit mindblowing. That anyone was named for Chester Alan Arthur is mindblowing. While not generally regarded as one of our best presidents, he’s also not one of the worst, and he sealed his electoral fate by turning his back on his previous support of the spoils system and becoming an avid reformer, against his party’s general tendencies. Perhaps it was that reputation that led his parents to name him for the never-elected president who had left office 25 years before The Wolf was born in 1910.
His distinctive voice would have made a mark in any style, but let’s face it: this is a voice for the blues. Oh man, is it. This album of tracks recorded from 1959-1961, originally released in 1962 as “Howlin’ Wolf” on Chess Records, is pure Chicago blues perfection. Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Willie Dixon on bass on most of the tracks, Otis Spann and Johnny Jones on piano, and a whole bunch of other prominent Chicago blues names. HIs version of Willie’s “Spoonful” is just THE version. His version of “Going Down Slow,” with Willie providing the recitation, will take you apart.
I believe I came across this at Deep Groove here in Phoenixville, and I believe I need more Howlin’ Wolf records. As the reissue doesn’t have the original cover (except in a picture on the back), it’s identified on the front as “second album, aka ‘Rockin’ Chair.'”