The Wolf’s quintessential howling cry rode a hypnotic pounding beat all the way the Top Ten of Billboard‘s rhythm & blues charts on the 1956 single ‘Smoke Stack Lightning,’ often spelled ‘Smokestack Lightnin” on subsequent releases. While the band stayed on the same chord throughout the song, the tension never relented on this arresting performance from Wolf, Willie Johnson and company. The sound proved still captivating in 1964 when a British rerelease of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ actually put Wolf on the pop charts at No. 42 in the U.K., where eager young bands were ready to take up his music. Chess A&R man Willie Dixon, who played bass on the session, recalled being mystified by the meaning of ‘Smokestack lightnin’, shinin’ just like gold’; it seemed to be Wolf’s own twist on the lyrics ‘the smokestack is black and the bell, it shines like gold’ sung by his mentor Charley Patton on ‘Moon Going Down,’ first recorded with similar wording by the Mississippi Sheiks in their ‘Stop and Listen Blues’ (1930).

Howlin’ Wolf, vocal and harmonica, with Hosea Lee Kennard, piano; Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, guitars; Willie Dixon, bass; Earl Phillips, drums. Recorded January 1956, Chicago. Released as Chess 1618 (45 and 78 rpm single).

Discographical details from The Blues Discography 1943-1970.