Howlin Wolf London Session
The story of Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions album has its genesis in San Francisco in August 1968 when Cream and Electric Flag played the Fillmore Auditorium. Backstage, Norman Dayron who was a staff producer for Chess Records introduced himself to Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield who were chatting. “How would you like to make an album with Howlin’ Wolf?” He said to Clapton. Unsure initially of his credentials, Clapton was hesitant, but when it was confirmed that Dayron was who he said he was Clapton agreed. It only needed for the guitarist’s schedule to fit in with Wolf’s and it would happen.
Cream split in November 1968 and then Clapton’s attention turned to forming Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech and so nothing happened on the Wolf idea until May 1970 when schedules were sympatico.
Wolf, who was 59 years old, arrived in London at the end of April where Clapton had been working on getting his mates enthused about the idea. Initially, Eric got Ringo Starr and bass player Klaus Voormann along with the Rolling Stones long-time cohort Ian Stewart on the piano to Olympic Studios in West London but neither Ringo nor Voorman really had the chops for the blues. On the original album release, only Willie Dixon’s ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’ from that day was used.
The call went out from Eric to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman who, with the Stones, had made a career out of the blues and they certainly had no issue with doing what was needed. According to Bill Wyman, they were there for two days, the 5 and 6 May, but this is at odds with the detailed session notes that accompanied the reissue which said they were in the studio for 4 days from 4 to 7 May. At some point during the sessions, Mick Jagger dropped by as well.
Whatever the case, they produced the goods and the London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions was completed. The whole affair was something of a trial for all concerned, even after the departure of Ringo and Voorman. Initially, Leonard Chess had baulked at paying for Wolf’s long-serving guitarist, Hubert Sumlin to fly to London, but Clapton insisted, no Hubert, No Eric, so Sumlin was there.
As can be heard on the tapes Eric at times struggled to get the feel of exactly what Wolf wanted, particularly on ‘Little Red Rooster’. Eric said “Well it’s your record, you do it and I’ll play along with you”, and Wolf said, “No Man, you play it somebody gotta carry it on after me”.
Even after the sessions were complete the project was beset with problems. Dayron returned to the US with the tapes, along with 19-year-old harmonica player Jeffrey Carp, who had been in London and played on the album. At Chess Studios in Chicago, Dayron and Carp brought in pianist, Lafayette Leake and Phil Upchurch on bass, as well as horn players Jordan Sandke, Dennis Lansing, and Joe Miller of the 43rd Street Snipers, Carp’s band. Steve Winwood who was on tour in America with Traffic was also drafted in to play piano and organ on these extensive over-dubbing sessions.
After everything was completed there was then some kind of argument between Dayron and Carp over production credits and apparently Dayron took the tapes and “headed for the hills” accruing to Rolling Stone magazine. Carp and his girlfriend booked a cruise after Christmas 1970 and he drowned after jumping overboard to help a passenger who had fallen into the sea. This obviously put an end to the arguments and Chess released the album on 21 August 1971. In 1974 a second album was released called London revisited and in 2003 the complete sessions came out on a 2CD set.
According to Wolf in 1964, “I’m mainly a folk singer but I do some rhythm ‘n’ Blues songs.” And he was all of that and more. He passed away in 1976 having been an inspiration to many and a hero to even more.
August 21, 2014 at 11:16 am
Fascinating. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. In the presence of the Mighty Wolf. I simpaphise with Eric, I struggle to copy the Wolf’s timing. It’s after the beat. So cool.
August 22, 2014 at 3:42 am
Nice to see something about Jeffrey Carp too! Great harp player, his Poor Boy licks are awesome! RIP!
August 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm
Great story of a great album. My late friend and drummer, Billy Allardyce met The Wolf many years ago. Now Billy was only 5’3″ and made the mistake of standing up close to The Wolf when talking to him. Witnesses said it was pretty funny to look at, with Billy straining to look up into the big man’s face!
November 17, 2014 at 3:25 pm
I heard Clapton farted loudly in the studio to boost
Ringo to achive that lowdown dirty groove, but Ringos
stomach could not take the odour and it turned upside down.
January 7, 2015 at 5:45 pm
great album I have never really been a fan of Clapton but I always loved this LP I loved that background material never about the production credit hassles. excellent article
January 7, 2015 at 5:48 pm
great article very informative about great album I have never liked Clapton so my love for the album is even more strange
February 15, 2015 at 11:09 am
Great article! Thank you for posting this.
One small criticism, I would have to disagree with the theory that Clapton was unable to play Little Red Rooster. I do realize that there is a recording on the CD of Clapton playfully asking Wolf to show him how the song is performed and urging him to play on the recording. It is my opinion that Clapton did this in part to flatter Wolf and at the same time to actually have Wolf play guitar on a track alongside with him and the other musicians who greatly respected Wolf.
To say that Clapton was unable to play Little Red Rooster, I feel, is to not hear the friendly fan nudging one of his heroes into playing guitar on the song. Besides, the song is rather simple to play, and its near impossible to imagine Clapton not being able to play it.
August 8, 2015 at 5:40 pm
I have to agree with your theory about Clapton pretending to be unable to play just to get his Idol to play. As you said the song is a fairly easy song to play, so I think that alone should prove that Clapton was more than capable!!! I mean look at some of his prior work, just playing Layla alone!!!!! He was maybe trying to learn some inside secrets from his Idol. But to say he couldn’t play or didn’t know how to play is just showing ones ignorance. I love the Blues and Clapton. I’m a dedicated fan, I was there when the place was sold out and I was there when the place was a burn out but I stayed until it was a sold out again!!!! Now it gets me, everyone discovering Clapton thinking they just found something new!!! But if it gets them turned on!!!
December 23, 2017 at 11:38 pm
Yes, Clapton did this to flatter Wolf and put him at ease. This is confirmed in Hubert Sumlin’s interview on the documentary Sidemen: Long Road to Glory.
August 4, 2015 at 4:28 am
I love Blues…
August 4, 2015 at 11:03 am
cool article but other accounts of these sessions I have read, including an interview with Hubert Sumlin, say that it was Marshall Chess who was balking at sending Sumlin to London. Also, Leonard Chess died in 1969 but the sessions were spring of 1970.
August 22, 2016 at 2:05 am
One of my favorite blues albums/CDs of all time. Especially the song “Little Red Rooster.” I met Howling Wolf and Hubert Sumlin in Max’s Kansas City in New York, in the Sixties.
September 9, 2016 at 1:35 pm
As I recall Eric had a bit of an awful time doing red rooster because wolf kept grabbing Eric hand and shaking it about. I do love that bit of ramble though.
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August 27, 2018 at 12:02 am
I think “accruing” a typo?