Saturday, May 22, 2010

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions

Hearing Howlin’ Wolf’s version of “Sitting on top of the World” earlier in the week reminded me of one the later Wolf LPs that was released in 1971. “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” featured an “all star” cast of musicians that acted as the blues legend’s sidemen. One of my favorite cuts on the LP is actually two – the rehearsal and the actual recording of “Little Red Rooster.” Credited on the LP as “The Red Rooster,” the rehearsal has Howlin’ Wolf showing Eric Clapton how to play slide guitar. It is one of those classic moments where Clapton, in all his humility, persuades the blues master to show him how to really play the blues.

The album was kind of a brilliant serendipitous idea by Chess Records' producer Norman Dayron who approached Eric Clapton backstage at a concert about the concept. Clapton agreed and the sessions were scheduled for early May 1970. Although Chess Record owner Marshall Chess did not want incur the expense of sending Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitar sideman, Hubert Sumlin, to London, Clapton insisted that he be present and Chess bit the bullet. Sumlin is featured on all of the cuts.

The cover lists the session greats that accompanied Howlin’ Wolf as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. Clapton is the only one who appears on all 13 cuts and Steve Winwood was not in London when the original tracks were being recorded; however, he participated on five cuts that were overdubbed at Chess Studios as 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Wyman and Watts were missing from two tracks each. “Rockin’ Daddy” has Phil Upchurch playing bass.  On “I Ain’t Superstitious,” Ringo Starr (credited as Ritchie) plays drums while longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voorman appears on bass. Wyman made it to this session; however, he plays cowbell as opposed to his primary instrument of bass.

2120 S. Michigan Ave. was the home of Chicago's Chess Records.  
Taken during a pilgrimage to the location during the summer of 2006

In addition, Ian Stewart, a member of the Rolling Stones’ entourage, played piano on four of the cuts. It is only fitting that the Stones' members Watts, Wyman, and Stewart participated in this project as one of their early instrumental recordings was titled "2120 S. Michigan Avenue" in honor of Chess Records physical location. The historic site is now home of Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven.  Dixon was a longtime session bassist, songwriter, and producer for Chess Records.  "The Howlin' Wolf London Sessions" included four Willie Dixon compositions; "I Ain't Superstitious," "Built for Comfort," "Do the Do," and "Wang-Dang-Doodle." Unfortunately, Dixon was not involved personally in this recording.

 Willie Dixon - built for comfort not for speed

Other musicians appearing on the recording included Chess session keyboardist Lafayette Leake who appeared on three cuts during the overdub sessions. Members of the 43rd Street Snipers also added their talents to the Chicago sessions and included their horn section on two cuts and blues harpist Jeffrey Carp on five selections.

Unfortunately, the19-year old harmonica virtuoso died within months of his participation on this release. To celebrate his appearance on the LP, he and his girlfriend had booked a holiday cruise to Panama. During the New Year’s Eve celebration, another passenger went berserk and began stabbing a number of passengers. In the ensuing chaos, Carp jumped overboard to save himself; however, he couldn’t swim and his body was never recovered. He certainly would have had a promising career. Although Carp’s harp playing is represented on a number of other recordings, he is largely unknown today.

“The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions” was the first in a series of recordings that Chess Released in the early 70s that also included albums by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. Muddy Waters, like the Howlin’ Wolf release, featured current rock sidemen. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley’s albums were live concert recordings. The London Sessions releases, along with several repacked compilations (the three volume Chuck Berry Golden Decade sets and the Blues Masters series) served to breathe new life into the flummoxing Chess Records, which had some less than profitable years.

I wanted to feature the entire LP today, but not all of the songs are available on YouTube. Nine of the 13 cuts (listed here as 8 tracks since the two versions of “The Red Rooster” are in one video) are featured on YouTube and I have included a playlist featuring these songs.


  1. How many artists did "London Sessions" for Chess Records?

    Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, and Chuck Berry are the artists I am aware of so far. Are there more?

  2. Willie Dixon --> Little Red Rooster.