Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Recordings

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

These represent Howlin 'Wolf's earliest recordings, and he was already more than 40 years old at the time. He had his sound down cold, and there was little Sam Phillips could do except turn on the tape recorder and marvel at the force of nature being unleashed. Who could possibly mistake a Howlin 'Wolf record for someone else? Before coming to West Memphis, Wolf fronted one of the Delta's first electric bands, and songs like "Oh Red" and "Everybody's In the Mood" (his variant on a Glenn Miller standard, no less) jump with ferocious backwoods intensity. Elsewhere, his all-stops-out vocals and fat, firm harp work play off each other to great effect, while Willie Johnson's jazzy, single-string runs make it sound like his guitar is made out of sheet metal and its strings out of barbed wire. On "Highway Man," Johnson bites as the band strolls and Wolf lays down the law; on the slower "My Troubles and Me" and "Wolf's at the Door," Johnson's distorted lines nearly steal the show from Wolf's impassioned cries. For someone whose style was often described as feral, the singer brings surprising nuance to songs like "My Baby Walked Off" and the rocking "That's Alright." The Wolf's Memphis sides unveil a strikingly original (but tradition-based) sound and unsurpassed conviction, and provide the foundation for the more familiar hits he was soon cutting in Chicago.