Take One: Howlin’ Wolf – “Forty Four” 1954 Chess Single

by | Mar 26, 2024 | 2 comments

Revolving on the rock room turntable today is one of the most important blues cuts in music history. A song with a sound that is both scary and unapologetic and with a compositional history that is a testament to the times in which it was created. The barrel aged blues classic has retained its mystery through the years and has gained in stature since its inception.

Recorded at Chess Studios and released in October of 1954, Howlin Wolf’s “A” side single, numbered Chess 1584, “Forty-Four,” had a involved journey before it was blasted out of the grooves in its electric guise. One of Chester “Howlin Wolf” Burnett’s most renowned songs, the cut was originally a piano based blues first recorded in 1929 by pianist Roosevelt Sykes.

Like most early blues, the melody and lyrics were passed around and down the line via country jukes and lumber camps. Singalongs and musical showdowns encouraged songs and stories to be moved around like the US mail. Sykes had learned the song from pianist Lee Green, who had first heard it played by Little Brother Montgomery who taught it to him as an instrumental piece. The tune was parsed out amongst different players across the South, lyrics were borrowed, changed, applied differently ,and slowly the song developed over time.

A set of verses titled, “Forty-Four,” was published in Thomas W. Talley’s 1922 text Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise. This text could be the genesis of the content that would be added to the piece over the course of the 20’s and 30’s. Some early versions of the song reference the “44” as the number on a thundering train; Sykes reading recalls the address of a lonesome country cabin, and the most recognizable definition of the title alludes to the caliber of a rifle.

Roosevelt Sykes 1929 rendition opens with the rhythmic rattling of keys. The songs moves loosely with Sykes melodic snatches giving the song its bones. The timing of the tune is shifty and the undulating groove eases itself into place. Pieces of the melody left behind were retrieved by Howlin’ Wolf twenty-five years later, but expressed using electric guitars and keening harmonica.

Howlin Wolf’s definitive 1954 version of “Forty Four,” was a powder keg of sound. His band for the record was comprised of what would now be considered an “all star” line up featuring Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams on electric guitars, Earl Phillips on drums, Henry Gray playing piano, and Willie Dixon on bass. The song collects a venerable who’s-who of the 1950’s blues world. It’s hard to comprehend the amount of talent contributing to the session.

The opening of Wolf’s version recalls the flavors of Sykes reading, with Gray quoting Sykes melody before the verses begin. The guitarists also take their point of influence from the clustered bass notes of Sykes left hand turning the line into a sharpened point. The hard driving groove of the song recalls the clinking and clanging of Chicago’s industrial revolution, and the relentless ringing of print presses and assembly lines. The song chugs with an urban motion, the rattling of a man heading into battle, and then heading out of town.

While the drums settle into a nervous clicking march, the guitars, bass ,and piano elasticize the groove, increasing the tension. The band plays two central licks; the ascending “bass” line and the rolling and ticklish barrelhouse lick that splits the verses.

Wolf sings the opening verse and howls dementedly “I wore my 44 so long, it made my shoulder sore.” His voice a menacing warning, a flesh and blood bullhorn announcing his arrival. Wolf totes his rifle over his shoulder, weary from the weight of the gun and apprehensive about what he may encounter when he reaches his destination. Later, the burden of carrying the weight is too much and the Wolf pawns his weapon for the comfort of some gold.

The band plays like cold steel, and after the verse, Wolf exhales deeply into his harp, quoting the central lick with bluesy variations. Gray pops the keys with bounding playing during the break before retreating back to the rhythmic churn when the Wolf returns for the second verse. The band is connected by an electric arc and charges through the verse playfully, but with a fierce determination. It seems as if the whole world of rock and blues at this point in time can be found within the confines of the “Forty Four,” blues. Serrated guitars, saloon piano, and a vault tight rhythm section.

“Forty Four,” is a critical touch stone in the development of blues and eventually rock and roll. Howlin’ Wolf and his band were some of the best narrators of the blues form, leaving behind blue prints for other musicians to follow and expand upon. In recent times “Forty Four,” has become a standard song of reference for blues players. Most, if not all contemporary versions hail from the definitive Howlin’ Wolf reading. But, they also recall the song’s deep roots in the early barrelhouse piano blues.

2 Comments

  1. Bob W.

    Nice write up of this rarity. I still play his Moanin’ in the Moonlight CD. A great bluesman.

    Reply
    • talkfromtherockroom

      Thank you for the comment Bob! Hope you are well.

      Reply

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