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Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960

Howlin’ Wolf
Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951 – 1960
(Hip-O Select)

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There are certain names that automatically conjure up the blues – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. At 6’ 6” and close to 300 pounds, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was as intimidating as a linebacker and had a rough-edged voice that sounded like he gargled with broken glass. The four-disk, 96-track Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 is a full-bodied early career retrospective that showcases Wolf’s iconic no-frills growl.

There are numerous alternate takes and mixes for many of Wolf’s best know tracks, including “How Many More Years,” “Dorothy Mae,” “Nature,” and “I’m Leaving You.” “How Many More Times” is served up no less than three times – re-titled as “No Place to Go” and “You Gonna Wreck My Life.” Many of the recordings sound as if they were recorded in a cereal box, but that helps, rather than hinders, Wolf’s pioneering primal blues delivery.

Wolf’s minimalist approach (harp, guitar, drums, stand-up bass) invariably makes some of the songs sound the same, but he varies his approach enough to show why burgeoning rockers like Keith Relf, Eric Burdon and Mick Jagger admired him so much. The horn section in “Oh! Red” gives it a fiery bounce, while his lack of a rasp in “Saddle My Pony” marks one of the few times Wolf softened his gravelly voice. “Smokestack Lightning” is deliberate and forceful with plenty of Herculean howlin’. “Neighbors” is highlighted by jaunty piano licks and a thudding bass line that saturates the mix, while “Hold Your Money” has happy harp passages that serve to remind the listener that the blues didn’t always have to be sad to be good.

Wolf’s vocal for “I Asked Her for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” is so coarse it sounds like the woman in question gave him a match too. “Evil (is Going on)” is perfect for his devilish delivey: “Long way from home, can’t sleep at all, you know another mule is kickin’ in your stall/That’s evil.”

Smokestack Lightning also offers an insider’s warts-and-all look at how Wolf constructed his tunes. In “Howlin’ for My Baby” Wolf’s drummer searches in vein for the right beat. “You Can’t Put Me Out” begins with an amusing conversation between Wolf and his producer: Producer: “You gonna moan?” Wolf: “I’m hollerin’ now. You gonna give me some money?”

Smokestack Lightning finishes strong with three of Wolf’s songs that became the backbone of his act: “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Backdoor Man” and “Spoonful.”

Wolf would go on to write more classics, including “Hidden Charms,” “Killing Floor” and the humorous “300 Pounds of Joy.” Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 captures the Wolf as a cub in his early years – and it’s a howlin’ good time.

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