Chester Burnett, a/k/a Howlin' Wolf, is one of the giants of Chicago blues music. However, years before the great bluesman made his early-1950s move north to the Windy City, he was holding forth on West Memphis, Arkansas radio, and performing his Delta-inspired raw-and-dirty blues for fellow sharecroppers at fish fries and house parties.
Discovered By Sam Phillips
On the other side of the Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tennessee, producer Sam Phillips - best known as the man to discover and first record the legendary Elvis Presley for his Sun Records label - listened to Howlin' Wolf perform on his KWEM radio program at the suggestion of a friend. Floored by what he heard, he quickly arranged for Wolf to come to his studio and put down some tracks.
Howlin' Wolf's Memphis Days: The Definitive Collection, Vol. 1 collects some of the Wolf's earliest and rarest recordings, produced by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service studio during several sessions in 1951 and '52. The 21 songs presented here show different aspects of the Wolf's mature, but still developing craft. Backed by a band that included proto-rock guitarist Willie Johnson, the elemental power of Wolf's performances still eclipses just about any other bluesman on the planet.
Howlin' Wolf's Memphis Days
The collection hits a mighty lick right from the first note, "Oh Red" swinging like John Henry's hammer. Released as a single by Chess Records in 1952, the song displays less of a countrified Delta style and more of an urban, big-band, horn-driven R&B rave-up sound. The Wolf's voice rings clearly atop Charles Taylor's blaring sax, and six-string maestro Willie Johnson injects a short-and-sweet solo near the end.
If "Oh Red" is all big city charm and dancefloor chic, then "My Last Affair" is pure buzzing classic blues. An alternative take of the version released as the flip-side of "Oh Red," this reading of "My Last Affair" features one of Wolf's strongest vocal takes, some fine harp playing, and Johnson's sharp guitar line woven throughout the song.
Goin' To California
"California Blues" and "California Boogie" both offer up Albert Williams' rollicking barrelhouse piano, Johnson's pre-rockabilly trembling fretwork, and alternately blustery and subtle Wolf vocal turns. Both songs were unreleased at the time, but the reckless abandon of "California Boogie" might have appealed to rhythm-and-blues-oriented record buyers.
Howlin' Wolf's raw vocals are on full display with "Mr. Highway Man (Cadillac Daddy)," the singer rocking the harp as well, with Johnson cranking out some tasty pre-Chuck guitar riffs as L.C. Hubert delivers an old-fashioned, pre-Jerry Lee piano-mugging.
Lyrically, "Color And Kind" is a brilliant, inspired take on race set to a thick, droning soundtrack that pre-dates the North Mississippi Hill Country blues of R.L. Burnside by a couple of decades. Later re-recorded as "Just My Kind," this version is simply mesmerizing and features James Cotton on harmonica.
Sam Phillips' First Sessions
With a strutting rhythm and off-the-tracks guitarplay, "Chocolate Drop" is another houserocker, the ode to an attractive woman benefiting from Hubert's swaggering ivory play and Wolf's lusty vocals. "My Troubles And Me" is an achingly sorrowful blues song, Wolf's mournful voice squeezing tears out of the words while Johnson's distorted guitar pierces the veil of darkness with precise rattle-n-hum.
For hardcore collectors, Memphis Days also includes both sides of the original acetate recording taken from Wolf's first recording session. A little scratchy-sounding due to the aging source material, the performances are powerful nonetheless. Accompanied only by Johnson on guitar, and explosive drummer Willie Steele, "How Many More Years" is a vintage blues "kiss off" song with great harpwork and Wolf's strong vocals.
The other side of that first acetate recording, "Baby Ride With Me (Ridin' In The Moonlight)," is a swaying mid-tempo number with throaty vocals and bumblebee fretwork, Wolf throwing in a little Sonny Boy-inspired harp for good measure.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
This first volume of Memphis Days easily equals the great Howlin' Wolf's later classic Chicago blues material in passion, if not always in material, which often pulls from traditional Delta sources. The roots of Wolf's highly individual vocal style can be heard in these songs, and the sessions showcase a primitive, albeit ambitious side to the Wolf's evolving blues sound.
Chester Burnett would make better records...especially his collaborations with songwriter/producer Willie Dixon...but he would never make more vital recordings than those captured here. (Bear Family Records import, released 1989)