Two new albums have come out that caught my eye and ear: Tom Waits new album, Bad As Me and the new 4 cd set of Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976). It’s called Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters.
The two singers, though separated by a generation, have many things in common. The first is a rough-edged voice—but one that they can put aside and and sing softly and tenderly. The second is that they are both good singers who always phrase correctly and sing in key. Third, their lyric worlds are populated by dubious characters, two-timing women, late nights with too much gambling and way too much whisky.
Both artists also have records where the recorded sound makes you think the engineer recorded them in a back room of some boarding house. Tom Waits actually showed up to record an album at a state-of-the-art recording studio, didn’t like the polished sound, and went out back to find a small shack and brought some rudimentary recording equipment in to get the job done.
For his part, Howlin’ Wolf recorded his first successful sides for Sam Philips Memphis-based Sun Records—the label that launched Elvis’ career—where the engineers deliberately turned the recording level up into the red to get distortion and a more urgent sound. Later he moved to Chicago-based Chess Records, where he had his biggest hits. The new collection features those recordings.
Both artists share another more personal trait: contrary to the lives they depict in their songs, they both sowed their wild oats early and went on to lead stable lives.Waits lives up north of San Francisco in a quiet community with his wife of two decades and their kids—shee–Kathleen Brennan–co-writes most of his songs. Howlin’ Wolf met a high class, sophisticated woman at a club, wooed her earnestly and married her, raising two children while maintaining a successful music career. He even provided health insurance for his band members, which meant that he always got the best.
Here’s a clip of Howlin’ Wolf performing “Smokestack Lightning”:
And a Tom Waits cut too: “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”