When Chester Burnett – Howlin’ Wolf to us lesser mortals – opens his mouth, what emerges is nothing short of animalistic. It was a fitting soundtrack as we omnivoraciously devoured two platefuls of blues-brunch delight at Johnson’s Café, located inside the reconstructed Selkirk Hotel at Fort Edmonton Park, a local historical site.
We kept things simple for our first date, which had the good fortune of landing on our 23rd wedding anniversary. Simple, but with a conservative smattering of weird. For one thing, we were dining in a restaurant located inside of a replica of an actual hotel, built within a theme park dedicated to Edmonton’s history. Outside the window beside our table, people in costumes were pretending it was the 1920s. Inside, we were eating potato pancakes and cream-infused scrambled eggs, quietly critiquing the facial tattoo choices of strangers.
Moanin’ In The Moonlight (1959) is Mississippi-born Howlin’ Wolf’s first album. It’s a compilation actually – in the 50’s, blues music was sold mainly on 45 RPM singles. The songs date back to 1951, when a young Ike Turner feverishly dragged the Wolf to Sam Phillips’ pre-Sun-Records studio and had him lay two tracks to wax: “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years.” The former was the A-side of the ensuing single, but the latter wound up catapulting the Wolf to Chess Records and the maximum amount of fame a blues musician in the 50s could achieve.
“Moanin’ At Midnight” opens, as it should, with a handful of primal moans. In the first lyric, “Somebody knockin’ on my door,” the Wolf starts out by hitting a note, then slides effortlessly into his trademark growl. In one solitary line, the entirety of Howlin’ Wolf’s appeal is laid out neatly. He commands his harp (the blues kind you blow into, not the big frilly thing with all the strings) expertly. He utters his lyrical theses in a savage roar. Every musical journey he takes us on is a journey through an untamed wilderness.
“How Many More Years” is unquestionably the better song. Ike Turner beats the everlovin’ crap out of the piano keys, Willie Johnson’s guitar is mucky and powerful, while Willie Steele delivers a solid percussive shuffle. If these two songs could be represented by any part of our Sunday meal it would be the meat: two kinds of sausage, and bacon so crisp you could cause it to shatter by slapping someone in the face with it. Which, now that I think of it, I kind of regret not putting to the test. Next time.
From here we hit the featured track on the album. Spotify has “How Many More Years” sitting at seven and a half million plays, while “Smokestack Lightnin’” has over 53 million spins. It may be the catchiest guitar riff (provided this time by Hubert Sumlin) the blues ever produced, apart from Muddy’s “Mannish Boy.”
The song was allegedly inspired by sparks firing out the smokestacks of trains at night, which is kind of a romantic thought – a blues harpist sitting beside the tracks, riffing on devil-hearted women and the magic of modern transportation. This song is ultimately about that unfaithful woman and the broken-down man whom she shattered. Really, that’s most blues music. But no one else can growl about how they’re crying then pop right up to a falsetto “woo-ooo” like the Wolf. This song was the chocolate chip pancakes of our brunch: sweet, a little gooey, and wholly satisfying.
From there we plow through three more album tracks: “Baby How Long,” which features a great little military-style blues shuffle by drummer Earl Phillips in the last verse; “No Place To Go”, which may contain my favorite vocal performance on an album that is filled with vocal brilliance; and “All Night Boogie,” with astounding drum work by Chess Records resident Fred Below, who’d made it to #1 on the R&B charts backing up Little Walter on “My Babe.” These songs are perfect blues. Much like the potato options we enjoyed (potato pancakes *and* waffle fries???), they provided more joy than they logically should have.
Next we flip the record. Not really – I’ll probably say that a lot in the next 999 dates, but we’re almost certainly not listening to these albums on vinyl. My record player broke. Please send donations.
“Evil (Is Going On)” is the next track, the only one written by bass player and super-scribe Willie Dixon. If you aren’t a big fan of the blues and you only know maybe ten blues songs, chances are Willie wrote at least five of them. The way Howlin’ lets the word “Evil” ooze past his throat is nothing short of magical. The backbeat does it for me on this one – a patient syncopated drum line to accompany Dixon’s bass. This was the eggs of the brunch. When it ended I wanted more. Just like those creamy/fluffy eggs.
“I’m Leaving You” comes next – damn, Howlin’ Wolf’s romantic history is bleak. Nothing about this track jumped out of the speakers and shook me by the ears, but it’s a fine blues number. I’ll liken it to the eggs benedict that we didn’t try – great, but there’s a lot of great to be had and only so much appetite. “Moanin’ For My Baby”, the second track about moanin’ on the album, isn’t nearly as catchy as its Midnight companion on side 1, but the Wolf is baring his teeth in this one. This is the bagel and lox we had: salty, but irresistible.
Up next we have “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”. I know, this lyric is a metaphor and whatnot, but it’s certainly a visceral one. Musically the band sounds tired on this track, apart from Smokey Smothers’ guitar work. I’ll compare this to our beverages: coffee and water (which I sniffed before I sampled, since I’m not sure if Jodie has developed a penchant for pranking; hey, Covid changed a lot of us).
“Forty-Four” is a vintage number, credited to Roosevelt Sykes and initially released by Sykes in 1929 – right around the time that the street we were on was meant to evoke. The song is a shuffle, but it hits the one with a profound thud, evoking its Louisiana roots. The song is downright menacing, with an angry Wolf wandering the lyrical streets with the titular loaded handgun. Someone with a voice that intense should not be aimlessly waving about firearms. This song was embodied by our surroundings – sepia-toned and shrouded by the silhouette of mystery.
“Somebody In My Home” is the final moaning (sorry – moanin’) begrudging of a woman who had done the Wolf wrong, and it plods along like a heartbeat. It’s the dessert-sweet berries of the album – sweet and potent, with just enough of a tart up-smack to remind us we’re still in an audio wilderness.
For Jodie, Howlin’ Wolf’s music was always tied to breakfast. Saturday morning tradition for her involved loud blues music, served up with bacon and eggs. Yesterday’s feast was the perfect fusion of tasty licks – both from various guitarists and of our fingers. Date #1 is in the books, and it was the perfect way for us to welcome the start of our 24th year of marriage. Every date needs a bit of moanin’.