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Smokestack Lightning - The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960

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Album Review

After issuing Complete sets dedicated to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley, Hip-O Select finally got around to the titanic Howlin’ Wolf in the fall of 2011, releasing Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960, a 97-track, four-disc limited-edition box set containing everything the Wolf cut in his first decade of recording. Although the first years of the ‘60s treated him exceptionally well — many classic sessions arrived in the first few years of the decade, many showcased on 1962’s peerless “rocking chair” album — this is where his legacy lies: with the spooky, primal howl that kicks off “Moanin’ at Midnight” and the scores of earthy boogies and down-and-dirty grinds that followed. Smokestack Lightning stacks up plenty of alternate takes, a good chunk of them never released in the U.S., but the repetition doesn’t slow the set down or turn it repetitive. Instead, the repeated alternate takes sit well with the treasures — many justly celebrated, some unearthed — all adding up to a testament to Howlin' Wolf’s unearthly, mighty force.


Born: June 10, 1910 in West Point, MS

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

In the history of the blues, there has never been anyone quite like the Howlin' Wolf. Six foot three and close to 300 pounds in his salad days, the Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may have possessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out...
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