Take One: Howlin’ Wolf – 1951 Single ‘How Many More Years’ – If Anybody Ask About Me

by | Jan 9, 2020 | 0 comments

Revolving in the ‘rock room’ today is what many folks including myself refer to as the first ‘rock and roll’ cut. Obviously this is a
highly debatable statement, but in the case of Howlin’ Wolf’s September 1951 single, ‘How Many More Years’ it may be true. Recorded in July of 1951, the song is
a frightful, distorted and cutting slab of blues that does everything a good
rock cut should do including menace the listener. The Wolf blew deep train whistle
harp and moaned the dangerous vocals while being supported musically by (not confirmed)  Ike Turner on piano, Willie Steele on drums and Willie Johnson on the revolutionary
electric guitar. Yes, that is the Ike
Turner you think it is, he was actually instrumental in getting Mr. Chester
Burnett to record his songs after his departure from the military. Now as an
aside, it has been stated that Billy ‘Red’ Love is the piano player on this
recording as well. Unfortunately with a number of formative blues recordings
like this it is often difficult to confirm or deny the musicians involved.
Released by Chess
Records, the September 1951 single featured ‘Moanin At Midnight’ as the ‘A’
side with ‘How Many More Years’ as the flip. Following its release, ‘How Many
More Year’s caught the ears of listeners and became the more track that
received more spins. Eventually ‘How Many More Years’ began its ascent up the R
and B charts and eventually landed at number 4. Both sides of the record were
composed by Chester Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf. You may ask why copies of the
original 45 say ‘Carl Germany’ as the composer? This has since been changed,
but originally songwriting was a funny business and as favors to the DJ’s who
played the songs they were thanked with credits!
Years before the accepted ‘birth’ of rock, Howlin’ Wolf was
laying down a weighty blues groove with bricklayers hands. Taken in conjunction
with the able production efforts of Sam Phillips, ‘How Many More Year’s was a
stunning slice of electric blues and a heavy duty recording that blues players
in modern times can only look at with glazed eyes and stunned amazement.
The needle drops and the song begins with series of heavy knocking on a woody piano and a hard left hand. Soon, the
first fuzzy edged guitar lick by Willie Johnson begins and just kicks down the damn
door. Right away there is something going on with the ambiance of these monstrous instrumentalists. Presumably, Johnson’s guitar tone was born from an overdriven tube amp and
Johnson’s introductory licks send a graveyard shiver up the listener’s spine.
When Wolf’s voice enters it contains the same serrated quality. What sounds
like a voice coming from under muck dirt over a fresh grave Wolf asks, actually
demands of his woman, ‘How many more years have I got to let you dog me around’,
I’d soon rather be dead, sleeping six feet in the ground’. With a vocal as
substantial as Wolf’s 6’6 frame, the band enters the break with a melodic Wolf
harmonica break while the rhythm section chugs along while wielding rhythmic blades.
At the turnaround Johnson dices up a descending lick to
which Wolf again gusts his blues horn. Turner/Red dances around the black and
whites while Johnson answers by playing perfectly timed sliding 9th
chords. The back beat is stomping work boots on a wooden floor hoping for an
evening of hip shaking. It’s no wonder that these early blues recordings were
looked at with a side eye. This stuff cooks with liquid white heat and I can witness how easily it would have got the juke’s hopping and initiated the listeners into getting it on! Wolf returns for the
final verse where he goes upstairs to pack his clothes and leaves with a
concluding warning that ‘If anybody ask about me, just tell em I walked out
that door’. While the verses descend the rickety staircase to the front stoop, the music swings
with just a touch more aggressiveness led by Johnson’s shadowy licks. In under
3 minutes the track concludes, but offers a lifetime of wonder and influence.
‘How Many More Years’ importance cannot be understated, The
song would be dissected by a number of aspiring musicians over the years, from
all walks of life and corners of the globe, with its individual elements
influencing composition, aesthetic, attitude, and abilities. Musicians aspired
to tap into the deeply rutted roots of this formative music. This song
represents a hearty well spring that many future ‘rock’ musicians tried to
emulate and replicate but could only hope to touch. Like anything, it would
eventually be co-opted and homogenized with a gentler and admittedly ‘whiter’
In the 1950’s the blues would be pressed into the mainstream by artists like Elvis and in the mid-60’s by the
Stones and Butterfield Blues Band. By the late 1960’s bands like Led Zeppelin
and the ‘heavy’ blues bands were unabashedly borrowing and covering songs from the
musical giants like Howlin’ Wolf, (see ‘How Many More Times’ from Zeppelin’s 1969
debut) But we know the truth. Thankfully the musical magic is documented,the topography can be traced and its bloodlines confirmed. The later rock bands
who followed the original blues masters must be thanked, as without their
deep archaeology, the giants may have become instinct. In 2018 famed purveyor of
blues, Jack White reissued Wolf’s 1951 single on his own Third Man Records
label confirming  not only his own influences but insuring a new generation of blues fans
can listen for the reverberating call of the Howlin’ Wolf.


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