Friday Night with Guitar George: Howlin’ Wolf

This is such a badass performance. Not much guitar action going on to qualify for FNWGG, but I am throwing it out there solely based on the sheer badassness of the vocal performance.

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in White Station Mississippi, endured a troubled (but not traumatizing) childhood, and eventually ended up in Chicago. His menacingly distinctive vocal growl and imposing physical appearance (6’3″, 275) were deceptive: by all accounts he was a generous and affable fellow. Unlike many of his peers in the blues scene of the 1950’s, Burnett managed to avoid the personal vices and irresponsible social entanglements that compromised or derailed many a promising career. He was also a smart and efficient manager of his finances and prided himself on paying his musicians well, and paying them up front (unlike most other “stars” at the time), thus he was always able to surround himself with top shelf talent. His cover of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” was a big favorite of the Rolling Stones when they were still perfecting their craft in the smoke-filled pubs in and around London in the early sixties, and they often included their own cover of the song in their sets. Legendary producer Sam Phillips said of Howlin’ Wolf: “This is where the soul of man never dies.”

What made Burnett such a brilliant vocalist was that within the gruffness of his voice were amazingly subtle variations of tone and pitch that added a rich,soulful undercurrent to his blues-soaked delivery. Turn up the volume a notch or two and check out 1:00 to 1:11 and 2:18 to 2:42. You can’t teach that. You can’t even explain it. It is said that Burnett never sang “Smokestack Lightning” the same way twice. In this particular version, he doesn’t even fool with the first verse, which begins with the two word phrase that gives the song its title !!

I will say it again–this is such an amazingly badass performance. No wonder the Stones loved this guy.

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