This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #46: Little Red Rooster by Howlin’ Wolf (+) covered by Sam Cooke and The Rolling Stones.
As we inch closer and closer to the end of this countdown, it is to be expected that we will come across songs that are the ultimate examples of excellence in their chosen genre. Today, we are going to meet a man who was born in 1910, named Chester Arthur Burnett. Mr. Burnett is as famous and respected a musician as anyone in this entire countdown. He is larger than life; quite literally, at over six feet tall and 300 hundred pounds. He is a man who is name-checked by the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney as being a role-model whom they hoped they could emulate and make proud. He is a legendary Bluesman who helped create the authentic Chicago Blues scene along side the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson. He is, the late, great man, himself, Howlin’ Wolf! This is his story.
Chester Arthur Burnett was born in the Mississippi Delta and learned the Blues from musicians who played locally in churches and small music clubs. He grew up in a religious house but, he was not a religious man. In fact, he was kicked out of his religious school for playing a hymn in a boogie-woogie style when he was nearing the age of ten. From that point onward, he was disowned by his mother who was ashamed that her son was playing the “Devil’s music”. So, Chester Arthur Burnett began a pilgrimage to find his estranged father. Along the way, Burnett fell under the influence of great Bluesmen such as Robert Johnson. While learning from his mentors, Burnett learned how to play the harmonica, as well as, the electric guitar. But, most of all, instruments aside, what Burnett learned to do was play the Blues. Under the tutelage of Blues masters, like Johnson, Burnett learned how to develop his playing skills but, also, his stage presence. He soon became known as “The Wolf”, for how he howled out the words of the songs he sang. It was, as if, he was possessed and was struggling to contain his angst, his hurt, his longing and passion, with each song he performed. Eventually, he was christened, “Howlin’ Wolf”, a name that travelled with him for the remainder of his days.
Howlin’ Wolf’s journey brought him to his father and to Chicago. There, he was signed to the famous Chess Records and began releasing records that scored well on the Blues charts. He developed a friendly rivalry with fellow Chess artist, Muddy Waters. Both men were using the songwriting talents of fellow Bluesman, Willie Dixon. Both men were always pressuring Dixon to save his best material for them. Luckily, he was more than capable of churning out hit songs for both men. For instance, Muddy Waters released “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, Hooch Coochie Man”, “Got My Mojo Working”…..*(which inspired Jim Morrison and the Doors on “L.A. Woman”…..”Mr. Mojo Rising”) and, as well, “Rollin’ and Tumbling'”. For Howlin’ Wolf, Dixon wrote, “Moaning’ At Midnight”, “Smokestack Lightning”, “I’m Leaving’ You” and, today’s song, “Little Red Rooster”. In the case of both men, Chicago Blues became every bit as recognized and respected as an authentic version of The Blues, as Mississippi Delta Blues ever did. Together, The Blues spread across America and, as we know, helped usher in the age of Rock n’ Roll.
All of the great rockers who formed the vanguard of the first wave of Rock n’ Roll all point to the great Blues men as a source enormous inspiration and respect. John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton….all of them, all state that their desire to get into music as a career stemmed from hearing and seeing the great Bluesmen, like Howlin’ Wolf, play. They wore out his records and ran to his concerts when he travelled to the UK. When they came to the US, themselves, they all sought out the Chicago Blues masters. Authentic Blues has a beat and a cadence that helped give early rock n’ roll songs their structure. Authentic Blues, also, had a passion and sensuality that seemed to be lacking in the crooner-style music that dominated the airwaves in the 1950s. One can only imagine was a revelation it must have been to have been a young boy, like Lennon or McCartney, searching for inspiration and then watching the energy, the sweat, the heat coming off the stage when they saw the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters play live.
The song, “Little Red Rooster” has become, what we call today, a standard. It is a song that acts as being representative of an entire class or genre of music. It was written by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf. Dixon states that it is a song about a barnyard animal. Maybe it is. But, if you believe that then, I have a special swamp land paradise that you should invest in immediately. No, “Little Red Rooster” is a song about sex. As you listen to Howlin’ Wolf belting out the lyrics about the rooster causing chaos in the barnyard, he does so with a sly grin and a big wink. I will definitely play his version of “Little Red Rooster” for your listening pleasure, below. But, as well, this song was covered by many of the greats of all-time; two of which were Sam Cooke and The Rolling Stones. Sam Cooke’s version replaces the electric guitar, which is featured so prominently by Howlin’ Wolf, with an electric piano/keyboard which is played, in the version you will hear, by the Fifth Beate, himself, Mr. Billy Preston. The song is still Bluesy but, more jazzy under Cooke’s soulful command. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, were very Blues-oriented in their early days, which is when they covered, “Little Red Rooster”. In the video for their version, note how the song centers around the playing of Brian Jones who, in the band’s beginning, was their creative leader. It is he, not Richards, who plays the lead guitar so faithfully and respectingly of Howlin’ Wolf’s legacy and style.
So, without further delay, here is some Blues with a capital, “B”! First up, Howlin’ Wolf then, Sam Cooke and finally, The Rolling Stones, to close. What a trifecta of talent! Man! Enjoy!
The link to the video for the song, “Little Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Howlin’ Wolf, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Little Red Rooster”, as covered by Sam Cooke, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sam Cooke, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Little Red Rooster”, as covered by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Rolling Stones, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.