Born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station, Mississippi, blues giant Howlin’ Wolf made his mark on the music scene after moving to Chicago in the early ’50s. Along with other greats like Muddy Waters, he exhilarated the blues genre, amping it up like never before with electric guitars and incorporating his signature “howl” into hits like ‘Smokestack Lightnin’.’
With popular singles like ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘Spoonful,’ he explored his artistic range, becoming one of the first to combine different genres like jazz and R&B along with envelope-pushing lyrics that expertly pushed the limits of the Chicago blues sub-genre.
When he wasn’t commanding the mic with his booming voice, he was laying down stirring solos on the harmonica. A bonafide blues legend, here is a list of the best Howlin’ Wolf songs we know you’ll love.
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9. Back Door Man
With the birth of rock and roll came a genre with provocative themes and lyrics that mainstream audiences had never experienced before (remember the “Elvis the Pelvis” nickname for the early rock and roller?). Long before rock introduced people to edgy content, it was already a big part of the blues. A collaboration between songwriters Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, the single’s title alludes to a man a married woman has on the side. The tune was released as the early musings of rock were starting to appear. After hearing ‘Back Door Man,’ it became a staple in several rock bands’ early repertoires, including The Doors, who released a cover in 1967. The song’s influence on fledgling rockers and its visionary sound that gave it a “blues-rock” label are two reasons this powerhouse kicks off the list.
8. Little Red Rooster
A key to the blues’ wide-ranging and time-tested evolution are the arrangements and adaptations of historic standards passed down from generation to generation. Aging bluesmen were oftentimes the biggest influences on younger generations, so the genre saw young musicians taking the music of their forefathers and making it their own. Songwriter Charlie Patton was a huge influence on Howlin’ Wolf. The genesis of ‘Little Red Rooster’ dates all the way back to Patton, when he wrote this blues number. When Dixon penned his own version, Howlin’ Wolf combined both Patton’s and Dixon’s efforts and turned the single into his own masterpiece. The popular blues standard has been described as many different things, from innocent farm classic to sexually-charged anthem.
7. Moanin’ At Midnight
Released as Howlin’ Wolf’s debut single in 1951, ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ was pressed as the A-side to the record, along with the single ‘How Many More Years’ on the B-side. Opening with deep south, gospel-tinged humming, Howlin’ Wolf soon breaks into searing harmonica solos over a bustling drum beat. An early effort that highlights the blues musician before his pivotal role played with the Chicago blues genre, the song, recorded in Memphis, Tennesee, oozes honeyfied delta blues flavor. The 2-single release broke the top 10 on Billboard R&B charts, but ‘How Many More Years’ was the more popular track between the two, so ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ comes in just behind its companion single on our list at number 7.
6. How Many More Years
There aren’t many musicians out there who can say they recorded at Sun Records before Sun Records was Sun Records (does that make sense?). A legendary studio in Memphis responsible for countless recordings by greats from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf recorded one of his earlier tracks, ‘How Many More Years,’ at the studio in 1951 when it was known simply as Memphis Recording Service. Owner Sam Phillips hadn’t transformed the studio yet, and Ike Turner (yes, THE Ike Turner), leased it for the day to record some material with then-blues up-and-comer “The Howlin’ Wolf.” Turner had discovered him playing dives in Arkansas, and after he brought the young talent to Memphis, the rest, as they say, is history. Imploring the tried-and-true heartbreak blues formula, ‘How Many More Years’ offers a vulnerable yet gritty look into a failing relationship, and is often considered to be one of the first rock and roll songs to be recorded.
5. Highway 49
“Long tall momma, she don’t pay me no mind.” Just as important as the bluesmen we love to listen to are the women who constantly keep them on their toes. The central theme to countless blues classics, without the wild women of the bluesmen who loved them, we’d have a lot less blues music to listen to. Such is the case for Howlin’ Wolf’s lesser-known story-track ‘Highway 49.’ A very satisfying effort for any fan of the classic blues structure, this tale centers around Wolf traveling a road that runs through Mississippi and Arkansas, looking for his woman who never seems to stay in one place for long. These heartbreak blues songs never get old, and Howlin’ Wolf commands the subgenre effortlessly. That’s why ‘Highway 49’ comes in on our list halfway through at number 5.
4. I Ain’t Superstitious
This relatable song opens with the foreboding lines, “Well, I ain’t superstitious. But a black cat just cross my trail…” Spend any amount of time in the American south and you’ll be steeped in superstitions of all kinds, from black cats and sweeping brooms to barking dogs, Howlin’ Wolf covers all kinds of bad luck signs southern communities have long-recognized as guides as they live their lives. Hailing from Mississippi, he instantly recognized these tokens in the Willie Dixon original, ‘I Ain’t Superstitious.’ Powering up the delta blues track with a metaphorical v8 engine, Howlin’ Wolf electrified the single and incorporated compelling jazz and R&B elements in the instrumentation alongside his signature Chicago blues style.
3. Killing Floor
With a beat perfect for nodding your head along with the tune’s rhythm, ‘Killing Floor’ is another classic Howlin’ Wolf track that finds the artist weaving his way through a tormented romance. Comparing his lover to someone who puts him “down on the killin’ floor” (ouch!), the term was a popular one among people who grew up in working-class communities with “killing floor” representing the area where animals meet their fate before being packaged and shipped out to consumers. Blues artists popularized the term and turned it into a slang saying often associated with heartbreak, turmoil, and desperation. Amid his sadness and frustration and not one to mince words, the musician admits he should have avoided his lover altogether and “went on” when his friend visited and told him to move down to Mexico. In his defense, sunshine and tequila have been known to solve a problem or two… at least temporarily :).
Taking the second spot on our list is Howlin’ Wolf’s tour de force, ‘Spoonful.’ Though Wolf grew up in delta territory like so many other blues artists, he made his way to Chicago in the ’50s and pioneered the electrified Chicago Blues movement alongside other heavy players like Muddy Waters. Responsible for several Howlin’ Wolf hits is mastermind Willie Dixon, one of America’s premier songwriters throughout the mid-20th century. Dixon wrote ‘Spoonful,’ a powerful story of romance, lust, and man’s attempts at regaling the opposite sex. The song needed just one chord faithfully holding down the rhythm as Howlin’ Wolf belted out the domineering number in the studio. Though not his signature hit, ‘Spoonful’ is a high-powered single in the bluesman’s canon of historic work.
1. Smokestack Lightnin’
Coming in at number one on our list is the blues musician’s signature hit ‘Smokestack Lightnin’.’ Opening with dark and stormy instrumentation featuring rock-tinged electric guitar fills and haunting falsetto coos, Howlin’ Wolf wrote the song about his younger days living in the countryside, watching trains emit plumes of smoke as they passed by, sparks flickering in the exhaust. One of the best tracks that highlights his “howling,” the bluesman was influenced by Jimmy Rodgers, known as “The Father of Country Music,” who often yodeled in his recordings. When Howlin’ Wolf realized yodeling didn’t fit his style, he interspersed soft bays and commanding roars in his music, thus the legend was born.
Related: This one (naturally) also features on our list of all time best blues songs.