Howlin’ Wolf: His Best – Chess 50th Anniversary Collection
I don’t know that it’s possible to recommend a straight up Howlin’ Wolf “album” per se, as so many of his songs were recorded and/or released as singles, so instead I’ll recommend a particular “collection”—this one. Pound-for-pound, it’s the best overall representation of Howlin’ Wolf’s best work. 20 songs that will tear your head off.
The first songs I ever heard of Wolf’s were “Who’s Been Talkin'” and “Killing Floor” (both included on this collection). Honestly, it was too much for me. It was just too raw, too powerful, too primal, too muscular, too rough. I was a 14-year-old kid still tryin’ to work my way back from Clapton. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t get it. I was afraid of it.
That’s the effect Wolf had on me. When Muddy Waters is the tamer of two options, you know you’re dealin’ with somethin’ wild. I was ready for Muddy. I wasn’t ready for Wolf.
Soon enough tho, I got him. But I had to go back to before him to get it. I had to go back to Charley Patton to understand. Howlin’ Wolf came from another time, another place. Chicago may have made him professionally, but the Delta formed him. By the time he hit Chicago, he was a grown man. A professional. A very, very serious cat. He might have been licking beer-bottle necks and belly-crawlin’ while on stage, but behind the scenes, he was providin’ health care for his band members.
At the end of the day, the biography doesn’t actually matter. Everything you need to know about Howlin’ Wolf is in the music. It’s fucking lethal. Guttural. It’s the sound of the man who knows this is the last song on earth. Wolf gave it all, every time. He’s my hero. Three chords and the truth? Fuck that. One chord and The Wolf.
What he achieved was remarkable. How could music be both so primitive, and so progressive? So raw, and so accomplished? What the fuck do you actually even CALL this music? Calling it blues just feels stupid. This isn’t a genre. As Sam Phillips famously said, “This is where the soul of man never dies.”
Sadly for us, Wolf did die. He died on this day, back in 1976. There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf. There simply couldn’t be. He left no room for anyone else.
Recommended tracks to start with: “Who’s Been Talkin'” and “Killing Floor.” Cuz that’s where I started. And I’m still with him.