"No one could match [Howlin' Wolf] for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits." -- Cub Koda
Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and close to 300 pounds, the Wolf was a looming, imposing presence. A voice that has been compared to heavy machinery on a gravel road, a blues song with no riff and one chord - this doesn't sound like the stuff from which hits are made. But one listen to "Smokestack Lightnin'" and all bets are off. The musical accompaniment sounds slightly scary by dint of its almost ramshackle quality. And then, that big voice moans and howls the blues so good you'd swear a freight train is passing by your window.
Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf, was a devotee of Delta bluesman Charley Patton in the 1930's. He befriended Patton after a show and Patton taught him guitar. Wolf also was inspired by other bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson (see Rock Island Line), as well as country singer Jimmie Rodgers. Trying to emulate Rodgers' yodel, Wolf said in Rolling Stone, "I couldn't do no yodelin', so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine."
Burnett moved in 1948 to West Memphis, Arkansas and formed a band. They performed regularly on the radio and in 1951 he auditioned for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. Said Phillips, "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' "
In 1956 Smokestack Lightnin' was recorded and released on Chess Records and reached #8 on the national Billboard R&B chart. It has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame's "Classics of Blues Recordings" category, was given #285 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame's "500 Records That Shaped Rock and Roll" also included it. In 1999 the Grammy Hall Of Fame gave the record an award honoring its lasting historical significance.
You owe it to yourself to hear this track.