Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chess Records: Spoonful

Our final look at Chess Records takes us back to a cut by one of the premier bluesmen from the 20th century – Howlin’ Wolf – although sometimes he is identified on records as “Howling Wolf.” Born as Chester Burnett, the Wolf was larger than life – a big man with a big voice and a big personality to match. His six foot three, 300 pound frame was not to be reckoned with by anyone.

If you’ve seen “Cadillac Records,” you’ll recall Howlin’ Wolf (played by Eammon Walker) basically putting Leonard Chess in his place. Chess backed down. Whether the encounter was historically accurate or not, it certainly could be imagined as actually happening.

One of his non-charting singles – in fact most, if not all of his singles, failed to chart – was the blues classic “Spoonful.” Penned by bassist and Chess employee Willie Dixon, “Spoonful” is a Chicago blues standard and became better known to a wider audience when Cream recorded it for the UK version of their debut album “Fresh Cream.” It did not appear on the US version of “Fresh Cream” being replaced by the single “I Feel Free,” which was absent from the UK issue. It was, however, issued as a single by ATCO in the US. But, I digress.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded it first in 1960 and provides the inspiration for most rock interpretations of the song.

Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition wasn’t, however, the only version by a Chess artist. In 1961, Etta James and Harvey Fuqua did more of an R&B take on the song. Not as sparse as Howlin’ Wolf’s interpretation, Etta and Harvey’s duet features a full orchestra conducted by Riley Hampton who also wrote the arrangement.

Different than Howlin’ Wolf’s original, Etta and Harvey’s version includes a key change and an alteration of the lyrical content as well as the chordal structure of the tune. While Howlin’ Wolf’s version is centered on one chord, Etta and Harvey’s version includes a number of chord changes. At the chagrin of most blues aficionados, the second Chess release did better on the charts. It peaked at #78 on the Hot 100 and at #12 on the R&B charts.

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