Big Foot Chester is the lesser-known alias of Chester Arthur Burnett, who is best known as Howlin' Wolf and when you hear him sing you'll know why. He possessed one of the most powerful voices in the history of blues, and had Howlin' Wolf waxed records as an a cappella vocalist, he would have still been riveting and he would still be considered one of the titans of the blues. As it was, he happened to have shit-hot backing bands and we have some superbly rocking records as proof. Slap a Howlin' Wolf record on your turntable and - voila! - instant house party. Wolf was key in taking the country blues to the city and his records, along with Muddy Waters' and a few others, stand at the apex of electrified urban blues.
Part of his unique and powerful sound, aside from his ungodly vocal cords, was his choice of guitar players. From his earliest recordings with Willie Johnson (not to be confused with Blind Willie Johnson) to his later and more famous Chess recordings with Hubert Sumlin, Wolf had a couple of doozies in these two guitar pickers. Wolf's Memphis-based band from 1948 until 1953 featured the scalding, distorted and unhinged fretwork of Willie Johnson. When you listen to their first recordings from 1951 they still, even today, cause the pulse to quicken and start feet to tapping with the beat. Listening to the Wolf is an instant jump start. If his sound doesn't set you to rocking, you need to check your pulse. The excitement of these raw sides are undeniable and it becomes clear, upon listening, how these sounds presaged and informed rock and roll. No fuzz pedals were involved, as they didn't yet exist, Johnson's brutal tone is the direct result of turning up a little old tube amplifier to 11 and letting it rip. If the sound of a distorted guitar is said to be nasty, then Willie Johnson was a king of nasty guitarists.
Wolf relocated to Chicago in 1953 and sent for the young Hubert Sumlin to join him, and he would remain as his primary guitarist for the rest of Wolf's life. In the recording studio Wolf would often employ dual guitars and Sumlin would find himself in wicked pairings with Willie Johnson (who made infrequent, but compelling, appearances on some of the famous Chess sides) and the unheralded Jody Williams. Hubert's swinging, finger-picked stylings would cut through and burn brightly on such classic sides as "Evil," "Killing Floor," "Red Rooster," "Hidden Charms," and "Wang Dang Doodle." From 1954 to 1964, Wolf cut many sides that were to become solid classics in the blues canon and they would have a heavy influence on the late-'60s blues boom. Hendrix, Clapton, Richards, Bloomfield, and many more were all in debt to Hubert and Willies' groundbreaking work with Wolf.
The impact of Howlin' Wolf remains vital and his razor-sharp electric blues still sends shivers up one's spine. Legendary producer Sam Phillips, who recorded some of Wolf's earliest sides, describes it best. "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies...I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you'd see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."
Willie Johnson tearing it up:
Willie and Hubert:
Fantastic solo by Hubert: