By the time Howlin' Wolf made it to Chicago, signed with Chess Records and released his first sides for them, the man was already 44 years old and had been playing an electric and electrifying form of the blues for nearly 20 years. By the time he recorded the blues standard "The Red Rooster," he was into his fifties and his already hard-edged voice was now a jagged, seasoned, and expressive instrument. He opens up this 1961 Howlin' Wolf (released 1962) recording with a master singer's attention to phrasing and note choice, milking out maximum emotion and nuance from the melody. He's joined by Chess session men Johnny Jones on piano, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Sam Lay on drums, and the song's author Willie Dixon on bass. Hubert Sumlin, a huge part of Wolf's Chicago records and stalwart sideman for the singer, backs Wolf's own slinky slide-guitar lick, which provides the backbone of the song. He can be heard teaching it to protégé Eric Clapton on the 1971 LP The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions.
Dixon's lyric is characteristically suggestive: "I had a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day/I had a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day/Keep everything in the barnyard, upset in every way/Oh, them dogs begin to bark, hounds begin to howl...Oh, watch out strange kin people, little red rooster's on the prowl."
The classic song has been recorded countless times, a warhorse for most late-'60s and 1970s classic rock acts. Blues aficionados the Rolling Stones recorded the track numerous times, initially on their third LP, Rolling Stones, Now!, a fairly faithful version with Brian Jones playing a mean slide and Bill Wyman imitating Dixon's acoustic bass. The Stones -- who took the song to number one on the British charts -- so loved Wolf that they insisted he be their guest when they were invited to appear on the American network television show Shindig! Sam Cooke also does a great swinging version on his 1963 LP Night Beat, with tremendous accompaniment by a young Billy Preston on organ, Barney Kessel on guitar, and Hal Blaine on the skins.