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.