Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Howlin' Wolf

  • Moanin' in the Moonlight [Chess, 1958]  
  • Howlin' Wolf [Chess, 1962]  
  • The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions [Chess, 1971] A-
  • Chester Burnett A.K.A. Howlin' Wolf [Chess, 1972]  
  • The Back Door Wolf [Chess, 1973] A-
  • Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog [Chess, 1994] A-
  • His Best [Chess, 1997] A+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Moanin' in the Moonlight [Chess, 1958]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Howlin' Wolf [Chess, 1962]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions [Chess, 1971]
A supersession with a conscience, or maybe just a reason for being, in which a whole raft of rich English rock and rollers--the cream: the core band is Clapton, Winwood, Wyman, and Watts--get behind the man who taught them their shit if anyone did. The material is classic, the playing early Stones with chops--committed to a slightly speedy shuffle, a little lighter and more ornate (horns on two cuts) than the old Chess stuff. Wolf's voice sounds a little light as well--doesn't threaten to shatter the bones. Maybe he didn't want to scare the white boys. A-

Chester Burnett A.K.A. Howlin' Wolf [Chess, 1972]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]  

The Back Door Wolf [Chess, 1973]
There's more art, as it is called, in this sixty-three-year-old man's large intestine than is likely to pass through Sunset Sound in a month. Can you imagine Steve Stills or one of those guys coming up with a title as bold as "Coon on the Moon," much less turning it into a fierce, ominous cry of ironic pride. The Wolf hasn't been in such good bellow for years. Suggestion: get rid of the electric piano player. A-

Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog [Chess, 1994]
Muddy's marginalia slip past when you're not listening. Wolf's always register--two hour-long discs containing 42 U.S.-uncollected tracks (including a mere smattering of acoustic versions and alternate takes), and not a song just makes nice and lies there. Even when he's only stretching his lungs, his voice fills the room, and from jump blues to pop soul, all attempts at commercial affability are swamped by his huge natural sound. Plus a bunch of horn arrangements that somebody up there probably thought were too bizarre or raggedy or something. The thing about Wolf is, he can never be too anything. A-

His Best [Chess, 1997]
Having caught Don McGlynn's wide-ranging, performance-chocked 2003 documentary The Howlin' Wolf Story on Prime, I wondered which of the Wolf CD comps I play I'd Consumer Guided and was chagrined to find not just that the answer was none but that only 1971's The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions was anywhere near the top of his Amazon offerings. Fortunately, Discogs told a different story: this and the slightly slacker but no way "folk" The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues are easy to snag used there, and snagging both wouldn't be a bad idea. Not for nothing did Sam Phillips, who recorded Wolf two years before he got to Elvis, always speak of the man born Chester Burnett in 1910 as a wonder of nature at least equal to Presley himself. The rough power of an almost feral voice devoid of the grandeur to which such huge voices generally aspire remains unequalled and almost unparalleled, and not only that he could write: 10 of the 20 classics here--most of them pre-1960, before Willie Dixon stepped in--are his creations: "Moanin' at Midnight," "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Evil," "Killing Floor," more. As McGlynn's film makes clear, the feral thing wasn't so much an act as a fact of nature that Wolf had the brains to stylize. He was also a fine guitarist who knew Hubert Sumlin was even better. To say he was often imitated as opposed to emulated would be an exaggeration. He was inimitable, a wonder of nature who made the most of it. A+