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Thursday 7 February 2019

The Legendary Sun Performers: Howlin' Wolf

Side 1:
01. My Baby Walked Off
02. Smile At Me
03. Bluebird
04. Everybody's In The Mood
05. Chocolate Drop
06. Come Back Home
07. Dorothy Mae
08. Highway Man

Side 2:
01. Oh Red
02. My Last Affair
03. Howlin' For My Baby
04. Sweet Woman
05. C. V. Wine
06. Look-A-Here Baby
07. Decoration Day
08. Well That's All Right

The Legendary Sun Performers: Howlin' Wolf (Zippy)

At first glance the title of this LP seems something of a misnomer as no Howlin' Wolf sides were issued on Sun. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to head this album with "The Legendary Memphis Recording Service Performers" as these sides were recorded by Sam Phillips for sending on to Chess Records in Chicago. However, they are from masters which lay for a quarter of a century in the Sun vaults, many of them being previously unissued until this 1977 collection.

As with the other LP I posted from this series, a Rosco Gordon collection, we find ourselves in the middle of the tug of war between Modern / RPM in Los Angeles and Chess in Chicago for material being recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis. This led to a situation in which Wolf recorded sides for Sam Phillips which were sent on to Chess, while at the same time he recorded sides in West Memphis under the supervision of Joe Bihari and Ike Turner for issue on Modern / RPM.

Howlin' Wolf had moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1948, where he formed a dynamite electric blues band called the House Rockers. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, he was an imposing figure who "sang" intense blues in an unforgettable hoarse shout and could also play guitar and harmonica. The early lineups of his band included guitarists Matt Murphy and Willie Johnson, Junior Parker on harmonica, William "Destruction" or "'Struction" Johnson on piano and Willie Steele on drums. Other musicians who appeared with the band were Pat Hare (guitar), a very young James Cotton (harmonica), Oliver Sain (drums and saxophone) and Tot Randolph (saxophone).

In 1949 or 1950 Wolf and his band gained a regular spot on West Memphis radio station KWEM. Across the river in Memphis, Tennessee, young record producer Sam Phillips got a tip about the Wolf from a West Memphis DJ. Sam tuned in, was impressed by what he heard (cue famous "This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies" quote) and duly set up a recording session at his studio on Union Avenue, Memphis.

West Memphis Days

Sometime in 1951 (probably May), Howlin' Wolf cut a demo of "Riding In The Moonlight" (aka "Baby Ride With Me") for Sam who sent the master to Modern Records in Los Angeles. On May 14th, 1951, Sam got Wolf into the studio for another cut of "Riding In The Moonlight" plus "How Many More Years" which he again sent to Modern, who didn't release them. In the meantime the Modern / Chess dispute was under way due to the success of Sam's recording of "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston on Chess, a record which the Biharis (owners of Modern and RPM) reckoned Sam should have sent to them.

West Memphis grocery store opening, early 1950s

Howlin' Wolf's next session for Sam was in July 1951 and the resulting masters "How Many More Years" and "Moanin' At Midnight" went to Chess who released the sides on Chess single 1479 in August. This record was a big seller in several locations and it eventually hit the national R&B Jukebox Chart at number 6 in March 1952.

Billboard 23rd February 1952

Now the Chess / Modern war really heated up. In September 1951 Wolf recorded a session for the Biharis at KWEM, West Memphis, which resulted in RPM 333 being released that same month - "Riding In The Moonlight" backed by "Morning at Midnight" which was a thinly disguised remake of the Chess side "Moanin' At Midnight." This session was supervised by Joe Bihari and Ike Turner who would go on to record further sides by Wolf for RPM at a private house in West Memphis over two sessions in October 1951 and January 1952. During this time Wolf also recorded sides with Sam Phillips in Memphis for release on Chess, these sessions taking place in December 1951, January 1952, April 1952 and October 1952.

The West Memphis session on October 2nd 1951 resulted in two releases - RPM 340 - "Passing By Blues" / "Crying At Daybreak" which was released in December 1951, and RPM 347 "My Baby Stole Off" / "I Want Your Picture", released in January 1952.

On December 18th, 1951, Wolf was back at Sam Phillips' studio where he cut "Howlin' Wolf Boogie" and "The Wolf Is At Your Door" which were released on Chess 1497 in January 1952. Another side from this session, "Worried All The Time", was released on Chess 1515 in July 1952.

On January 23rd 1952, a Sam Phillips session produced Chess 1510 - "Gettin' Old And Grey" / "Mr. Highway Man" which was released in April 1952.

The West Memphis session on February 12th, 1952, which was the Wolf's last for the Biharis, resulted in 7 sides being recorded, none of which were released on single. 3 of them, "House Rockin' Boogie," "Brown Skin Woman" and "Worried About My Baby" were eventually released on the Crown LP "Howling Wolf Sings The Blues" in 1962.

Later in February 1952, Chess and Modern came to an agreement. Howlin' Wolf became an exclusive Chess artist while Modern got exclusive rights to Rosco Gordon (or so they thought).

On April 17th, 1952, the Wolf returned to Sam's studio where among the sides he cut was "Saddle My Pony" which was released with "Worried All The Time" from the December 1951 session on Chess 1515 in July 1952.

The Wolf's next session wasn't until October 7th, 1952, when he cut four sides for Sam, two of which were released on Chess 1528 in November 1952 - "Oh Red!!" and "My Last Affair."

There is some doubt about a series of recordings by Howlin' Wolf which are often listed as Memphis recordings from an unknown date which were subsequently remastered at the Chess Studio in Chicago in September and October 1953. It is likely that these recordings were in fact made in Chicago in 1953. One single resulted from these recordings, Chess 1557 - "All Night Boogie" / "I Love My Baby," released in December 1953.

Howlin' Wolf moved to Chicago in 1952 or 1953 and his subsequent recordings were made at the Chess Studio, perhaps from September 1953 onwards (see above), but without doubt from March 1954 onwards.

Recording Dates of the Trax on "The Legendary Sun Performers" LP:

All tracks recorded at Memphis Recording Service, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis Tennessee.

01. My Baby Walked Off - January 23rd, 1952
02. Smile At Me - December 18th, 1951
03. Bluebird - April 17th, 1952
04. Everybody's In The Mood - April 17th, 1952
05. Chocolate Drop - January 23rd, 1952
06. Come Back Home - October 7th, 1952
07. Dorothy Mae - April 17th, 1952
08. Highway Man - January 23rd, 1952
09. Oh Red - October 7th, 1952
10. My Last Affair - October 7th, 1952
11. Howlin' For My Baby - December 18th, 1951
12. Sweet Woman - April 17th, 1952
13. C. V. Wine - October 7th, 1952
14. Look-A-Here Baby - December 18th, 1951
15. Decoration Day - April 17th, 1952
16. Well That's All Right - April 17th, 1952

Session Details for the above Trax:

December 18th, 1951 -

Personnel: Howlin' Wolf (vocal, harmonica) with: L.C.Hubert (piano); Willie Johnson (guitar); Wille Steele (drums); unknown bass and tenor sax.

Smile At Me
Howlin' For My Baby
Look-A-Here Baby

Howlin' For My Baby released as The Wolf Is At Your Door on Chess 1497 in June 1952. Rest of these sides unreleased.

Also recorded: Howlin' Wolf Boogie (Chess 1497), California Blues, California Boogie, Worried All The Time (Chess 1515).

January 23rd, 1952 -

Personnel: Howlin' Wolf (vocal, harmonica) with: L.C.Hubert (piano); Willie Johnson (guitar); Wille Steele (drums); unknown bass and saxes.

My Baby Walked Off
Mr. Highway Man
Chocolate Drop

Mr. Highway Man is an alternate take of Chess 1510 (April 1952). Rest of these sides unissued.

Also recorded: Gettin' Old And Grey (Chess 1510), My Troubles And Me.

April 17th, 1952 -

Personnel: Howlin' Wolf (vocal, harmonica) with: James Cotton (harmonica) on "Dorothy Mae"; William "Struction" Johnson (piano); Willie Johnson (guitar); Willie Steele (drums); unknown bass.

Everybody's In The Mood
Dorothy Mae
Sweet Woman
Well That's All Right
Decoration Day

All sides unissued.

Also recorded: Saddle My Pony (Chess 1515), Color And Kind.

October 7th, 1952 -

Personnel: Howlin' Wolf (vocal, harmonica) with: James Cotton (harmonica); Walter "Tang" Smith (trombone on Oh Red); Charles Taylor (tenor sax on Oh Red); L.C. Hubert (piano); Willie Johnson (guitar); Willie Steele (drums); unknown bass.

Oh Red
My Last Affair
C. V. Wine Blues
Come Back Home

"Oh Red"!! and "My Last Affair" released on Chess 1528 in November 1952. Rest of these sides unissued.

The Howlin' Wolf CDs in my collection are:

"Come Back Home" (SBLUECD017) is a budget priced compilation of 20 of the Memphis Recording Service tracks. Snapper, Complete Blues series, 2004.

"Howling Wolf Sings The Blues" is an augmented reissue of Crown LP 5240. The original LP had 10 Modern / RPM tracks, 2 of which were actually Joe Hill Louis instrumentals. For this issue Ace added 10 more tracks from the RPM vaults, including the early demos of "Ridin' In The Moonlight." This collection comprises just about everything recorded by The Wolf for the Biharis. Ace CDCHM 1013, released in 2004.

Also in my collection:

"Howlin' Wolf - The Genuine Article." - 25 track comp of Chess sides which includes "Moanin' At Midnight" and "How Many More Years" from the Sam Phillips sessions. Loads of later classics such as "Spoonful," "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Back Door Man,"  etc. MCA MCD 11073, 1997.


"Howlin' Wolf: His Best Vol. 2" - 20 more Chess sides such as "Down In The Bottom," "Rockin' Daddy," etc. Some duplication with "The Genuine Article." Includes "Howlin' Wolf Boogie" and "Mr. Highway Man" from the Sam Phillips sessions.Also "All Night Boogie" from the 1953 tracks which are sometimes attributed as Memphis recordings. Universal, 112 026-2, issued in 2000.

Recommended reading -

"Moanin' At Midnight: The Life and Times Of Howlin' Wolf", by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004.

Information for this post was found in the above book, plus - liner notes by Dave Sax to Ace CD "Howling Wolf Sings The Blues," and the Bruyninckx discography. Online sources -,,, Billboard on Google Books.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! I have most of the music already, but the focus on Memphis in this selection is very appreciated. As usual, the BBW curation is invaluable. Thanks!

pino said...

thank you very much

Hugh Candyside said...

Thanks for this. I recently read Peter Guralnick's Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll (which everyone should read). He said that Phillips always considered Wolf his "greatest discovery." He was a blues fan first and foremost, and although he regretted losing Elvis, it seemed his bigger regret was losing the Wolf.

boogiewoody said...

Thanks Hugh. Yes, I agree that everyone should read that Sam Phillips book. A pretty massive tome, but a great read.


pino said...

thanks .. !!!