Friday, December 02, 2011

Smokestack Lightning- Howlin' Wolf's Musical Evolution

Chester Arthur Burnett, known as Howlin' Wolf, was one of the seminal blues artists of all time. Sam Phillips who recorded Wolf’s earliest sides said of Wolf “This is where the soul of man never dies.” Having produced similar compilations of Little Walter, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley amongst others, Hip-O-Select takes us to what is likely two sets of the Chess recordings of the Wolf over four discs, The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960, in an attractive hard back book with sleeves to have ready access to the four CDs that include 97 tracks and a little under 5 hours of music.

The book package contains an overview of Wolf’s music from Peter Guralnick and an overview of the included recordings by Dick Shurman, along with a variety of photos and newspaper clippings with full discographical information. The music ranges from Sam Phillips earliest recordings of Wolf in Memphis that were sent to Chess in Chicago through the 1960 Chicago session that produced Back Dog Man, Wang Dang Doodle and Spoonful. Roughly a third of the recordings on this were recorded by Phillips in Memphis with the remainder in Chicago after the Chess brothers convinced him to move north.

Many of Wolf’s signature recordings are included ranging from the initial release of Moanin’ At Midnight and How Many More Years from his first session in Memphis along with other deep south sounds as Bluebird (Blues), Streamline Woman, Mr. Highway Man and Saddle My Pony, to the Chicago recordings by him including No Place To Go, Forty Four, Smokestack Lightning, The Natchez Burning, Sittin’ On Top Of the World, Mr. Airplane Man, and Back Door Man.

As the selected song titles suggest, there are many impressive sides included that if an artist had simply recorded a couple of songs would be regarded as the basis of a legendary career. In Wolf’s case, his body of work merits this consideration as well as the iconic songs. And the recordings start with the Memphis sides with Willie Johnson on guitar, Willie Steele on drums, Ike Turner, L.C. Hubert or Bill ‘Struction’ Johnson on piano, and on one session James Cotton (who plays on Saddle My Pony). After relocating to Chicago, Wolf’s sessions included Otis Spann and Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Otis “Smokey” Smothers and Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Abb Locke on saxophone and Earl Phillips and fred Below on drums.

While Williams and Johnson are very prominent on the earlier Chicago sessions, these recordings also allow us to appreciate the emergence of Hubert Sumlin as an important and original guitar voice whose guitar lines snaking against the rhythm provided a bite in addition to Wolf’s powerful vocals that provided an immediately recognizable as the recordings evolved with the rollicking boogies of the Memphis days to storming shuffles and emphatically performed slow blues that hit like the Chicago winter winds.

All of the issued recordings are included along with alternate takes and several compilations of alternate takes and studio banter. From a listening standpoint, one wishes some of these alternates were not included in the generally chronological presentation of material, but perhaps at the end of the package. While there is a value of illustrating how the sessions shaped what was ultimately released, one wonders if so much of these multi-take tracks was included to fill out four CDs so they could split Wolf’s Chess recordings into two volumes. This is the only fault one might suggest about this reissue. The sound is quite good on this reissue of some of the greatest blues recordings of the past six or so decades. With the holidays around the corner Howlin’ Wolf’s The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 will make a terrific gift.

This was a purchase.

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