Howlin' Wolf

Chess Records Outtakes, Demos, & Alternates 1948-1968

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This chronologically arranged triple-CD set could be considered the bootleg parallel to MCA's Chess Box volume on Howlin' Wolf. Assembled here are 60 tracks by Howlin' Wolf that fall outside the official canon of his work, covering his years in Memphis and Chicago, and intersecting with his work for Sam Phillips, the Bihari Brothers, the Chess brothers, etc. Some of it has been heard before in various contexts, or in other versions, but pulling it all together in one place ends up building a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts -- across 20 years of recording, the voice and the persona blaze away and ring out like a force of nature, on numbers like "Dorothy Mae," "Blackbird," "Midnight Blues," and "I Don't Know." There are some genuine surprises here, too, including a 1968 outtake of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," that doesn't last long enough to have been considered for release -- it adjoins a surging "Tired of Crying" that is one of the highlights of Wolf's late-career work at Chess. The quality of the material varies considerably, as one would expect from the wide-ranging dates represented -- the 1940s material is from disc sources that can be very rough at times, but Wolf's vocals and Willie Johnson's guitar cut through the sonic imperfections in evidence; from 1950 onward, most of the tracks are derived from higher quality sources, mostly audiotape masters, and the fidelity on discs two and three, covering the years 1952-1968, is a match for some legitimate Chess reissues that we've seen. These platters are CD-Rs, but of a very high quality -- they play fine on most DVD players (which aren't supposed to be able to read most CD-Rs). The artwork is ambitious if ultimately a little crude, and there's no annotation to speak of, but the listening experience is beyond criticism, and this set -- which has turned up at the best collectors' shops -- is highly recommended for anyone who can't get enough Howlin' Wolf (which is, mostly, anyone who's ever heard him).