Howlin’ Wolf was a Mississippi born, Chicago Blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player that influenced many musicians that were discovering the Blues in the sixties. You hear him in John Mayall, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Groundhogs, Chicken Shack, Savoy Brown, Foghat, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Captain Beefheart, The Rolling Stones and of course Led Zeppelin.
Howlin’ Wolf (real name Chester Burnett) was born in 1910, 6ft 3inches tall with a big scary voice. He was one of the first artists to successfully demand a proper credit after Led Zeppelin appropriated his song Killing Floor on Led Zeppelin ll and renamed it The Lemon Song, credited to Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham. He settled out of court and had his name added as a writer although as Led Zeppelin rewrote most of the songs they appropriated, changed lyrics and interpreted them rather than simply copying the song exactly, the band’s writing credit remained. Interestingly on early versions of the album, the label lists the song as Killing Floor credited to Burnett and the sleeve, The Lemon Song credited to the band…whoops!
Howlin’ Wolf’s first album Moanin’ In The Moonlight was released in 1959. It was later reissued in 1969 and titled Evil after the opening track on Side 2. The album was a compilation of singles from the fifties and featured Smokestack Lightning, released on Chess Records and one of Burnett’s most famous songs. It featured Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson on guitar, Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Earl Phillips on drums – it’s a Blues classic. With Willie Dixon in his band he had one of the legendary Blues writers in his midst and he recorded Dixon’s legendary Spoonful, later made famous by Cream. He also wrote Little Red Rooster made famous by the Stones and the classic, I Just Want To Make Love To You made famous by Muddy Waters amongst others.
If you are unsure where to start with the Blues, this a good place. It’s laced with woman pain, sexual innuendo, social issues, drug references, despair but also joy – music that turns emotional tragedy into hopeful respite.
Here’s some different versions of the song: a live sixties version, a seventies revamp and the 1964 original single version.