Classic albums you say – by who’s standard? Well albums as a product are easily measured by chart success of course, in terms of revenue retained, and of course who is talking about it 25 years later. But a classic album isn’t always just that, it can’t be all things to all people. Our classic albums will talk about the records that changed blues history, the records that started a trend, and the records that are just so damn listenable. In your eyes, some of it will be crap, so bear with us. But if you do bear with us then you might hear something new, or hear it a bit different to before. So crack open a beer, read this review, and make sure you go away and instantly have a listen.
Interestingly our first entry into our classic albums review section will be for arguably one of the most underrated albums of the last century. Not just because of the caliber of the musicians in the studio but also because of the immense musical quality of the recording. Yet more people probably listen to it now than listened at the time, indeed it’s reissue 32 years later is probably shifting more copies than the original. Are you starting to get my classic albums philosophy yet?
It would make an interesting quiz question if it hasn’t already. Which record of the twentieth century featured a stateside blues legend, the lead guitarist of one of Britain’s top blues bands and the rhythm section of the rock and roll era’s biggest success, yet only charted at number 79 on the Billboard 200? Of course, “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.”
Now the whole idea of the sessions started out of nothing more than a backstage conversation. The story goes that Norman Dayron, a Chess Records producer, had a conversation with Clapton and Mike Bloomfield at the Fillmore as Cream, Electric Flag and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band shared the bill. This seems an unlikely first meet as that gig happened in 1967 and Dayron informs us in the sleeve notes that the plan “was hatched in ’69 or ’70.” Either way Dayron put the offer on the table and Clapton said yes, the rest is history. Clapton insisted on Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin coming over too and enlisted the rhythm section from the Rolling Stones. Recording was to take place between May 2 and May 7 1970 at Olympic Studios, London.
The core musicians for the recording were Howlin’ Wolf – Vocals; Eric Clapton – Lead Guitar; Hubert Sumlin – Rhythm Guitar; Bill Wyman – Bass; and Charlie Watts – Drums. Piano was covered by Ian Stewart, Steve Winwood and Lafayette Leake. Conflicting schedules made recording a bit of a nightmare so other artists feature throughout the album including Ringo Starr, Phil Upchurch, Klaus Voormann and John Simon. The recording also had the services of a young harmonica prodigy by the name of Jeffrey Carp aged 19, he unfortunately died not long after the sessions.
So onto the good stuff, now that we have discovered there was some real talent in the room. The album starts with Rockin’ Daddy a very danceable track which shows of he strength of Clapton on lead from the very first note. Enter Wolf at 28 seconds proudly declaring with his trademark gravely voice “yes they call me the rocker, I can rock you all night long.” A quarter short of four minutes and a great opening track, a real statement of intent from all musicians on the track.
Swiftly moving on after to the very smooth and rhythmic I Ain’t Superstitious, with Ringo Starr on drums no less. Again showing Clapton off on lead guitar, but dare I say the track is rounded off nicely with Bill Wyman on cowbell duty? One of my favourites on the album, has been my last-drink-before-bed track for years. Sittin’ On Top Of The World and Worried About My Baby both show off the harmonica as the prominent instrument. Young Jeffrey Carp plays on the former and Wolf on the latter. Worried About My Baby has some nice guitar and piano interludes, again two solid tracks where Wolf exploits the musical talents of those around him. Following that we have the two middle of the road tracks on the album, What A Woman and Poor Boy. The former written by James Oden, the singer/songwriter who wrote a few bits for Muddy Waters in his time too.
In the old record days we’d be onto side two, and Wolf is keen to lead off again with his best rhythmic blues of Built For Comfort. Yet again a solid track with a great sound on recording. Particular credit goes to the trumpet and saxophone parts from Dennis Lansing and Joe Miller. Again another of my favourites in the classic Who’s Been Talking? This song sounds almost as if it was written just for the Rolling Stones rhythm section, and benefits greatly from Steve Winwood on Organ. Blues nerd and guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa went on to record this a few years back, adding a heck of a lot more electric guitar, it came out sounding more like Led Zepellin’s a Whole Lotta Love than it does the Wolf track. Perhaps he was joining the dots of blues and rock and roll history?
This is swiftly followed by the equally strong Red Rooster which has a snippet of the practice session on this track beforehand. Hearing such snippets some forty odd years on adds to our impression of the musical talents of those in the room. Do The Do, a guitar led track which again shows off Eric Clapton begins to bring up the rear of the recording. You can feel the drums thump on this one, if you have the album loud enough by now. Insistent that this album will not go quietly into the night, the group channel a bit of Big Joe Williams from across Atlantic through his song Highway 49. The instantly recognisable riff that has been appropriated and used in many blues classics since.
Marshall Chess couldn’t let arguably his biggest artist release a record with a blues supergroup without recording one of the Chess Records staples. Wang Dang Doodle written by Willie Dixon, the almost forgotten man of these recordings, makes for a thrilling climax. Recorded by many before and after including with the powerful vocals of Koko Taylor, this song was never fails to impress. Playing a very much slower tempo version it allows Wyman to show off the power of the bass in this record at the final opportunity. Needless to say that the sound on that lead guitar again is close to perfection. The boys are rising to the occasion.
This album is one of the most prominent in my blues memory, one of the only times that a supergroup has managed to create a well-rounded sound. No personalities have been dominant here, no one came to show off. The 2003 deluxe rerelease has been tweaked to sound better on modern sound systems and it brings out more from already great recordings. There isn’t a lot here to suggest it was all done on a budget and on a schedule, it doesn’t feel organised but it doesn’t feel rushed.
This album is timeless, it doesn’t have a perfect place. You could play it at a party, you could sit alone with a whiskey and absorb every last note. Ultimately, it is that fact that probably hindered its commercial success. It could be no-one’s favourite album, and yet it is mine. Is it a classic record, or is it a record made by men who make classics? Get a copy now, why don’t you find out for yourself.