23 February 2009

Shinin' just like gold

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, performing his signature blues classic, Smokestack Lightning, on a 1964 TV broadcast. I love the contrast between his bottomless vocal growl and the Pied Piper call of the falsetto 'woo-hoos'. And man, that's a snappy suit!

Howlin' Wolf was a hugely influential figure in American blues whose career was revitalised when British rock bands with a passion for the blues conquered the American charts in the wake of the Beatles. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were huge Howlin' Wolf fans and had already recorded a well-known cover of his track Little Red Rooster (which was actually written by bassist Willie Dixon, the bassist to Wolf's right in the video).

The Who also counted themselves as big Howlin' Wolf fans. In this recording they perform Smokestack Lightning in a brief medley with Spoonful, another Wolf song written by Dixon:

While this performance isn't up to The Who's usual high standard, there's an explanation. During this 1973 gig at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the first performance in The Who's Quadrophenia tour of the US, Keith Moon passed out twice due to ingesting a frighteningly large amount of tranquilisers. Trying to give the audience what they'd paid to see, Pete Townshend called for a drummer from the audience to fill in. Nineteen-year-old Scot Halpin was plucked from the crowd and sat in for three numbers with The Who - surely one of the most sought-after opportunities in rock history. Here's a longer extract of the concert footage showing Moon's two collapses and Townshend's apologies to the audience.

(Postscript: Halpin died in February 2008, aged 54)

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