Back Door Man, the B-side of Wang Dang Doodle
Chester Arthur Burnett was born on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. His parents broke up when he was very young, and his mother threw him out of the house for refusing to work around the farm. He then moved in with his uncle, Will Young, who treated him badly. When he was 13, he ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles to join his father, and he finally found a happy home with his father’s large family. A chance meeting with Delta blues legend Charley Patton at age 18 changed young Burnett’s life. Apparently it was Patton who first gave him the idea that he could pursue music as a career. In addition, two of the components of Burnett’s style (Patton’s distinctive growl and his talent for entertaining) were learned first-hand from Patton, although he did not master the subtleties of Patton’s guitar playing. Burnett farmed during the 1930’s (indeed, he might have been content with a life of farming if he had not met Patton), and also began his musical career in the early 1930’s as a Patton imitator. By the end of the decade, many remember seeing him rock juke joints with a neck-rack harmonica [Sonny Boy Williamson II had married his half sister and had begun to teach him the rudiments of the instrument] and one of the first electric guitars anyone had ever seen. Burnett served as a radioman in Seattle for four years during World War II, and after the war, started a band that by 1948 included guitarists Willie Johnson and M.T. Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as “Destruction” and drummer Willie Steele.
Under the pseudonym Howlin’ Wolf, Burnett began broadcasting on KVEM in West Memphis, Arkansas and alternated between playing and pitching farm equipment. He auditioned for Sam Phillips in Memphis, who signed him to a contract. Phillips subsequently leased his rights in 1951 for the Bihari brothers at Modern/RPM Records and Leonard Chess’ Chess Records. His first release, “How Many More Years” b/w “Moanin’ at Midnight”, was released on Chess Records in October 1951. The single was also released on the Bihari’s Los Angeles-based RPM Records. “How Many More Years” was his first and biggest hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard national R&B charts. The B-side, “Moanin’ At Midnight” peaked at #10, making this first single a true double A-side. The success of this single set the stage for a bidding war between the Bihari brothers and Chess, with each seeking to have Howlin’ Wolf exclusively under contract. Chess Records finally won out, and for the rest of his recording career, Wolf was signed to Chess. In 1956, “Smoke Stack Lightning” b/w “You Can’t Be Beat” charted for three weeks, peaking at #8; that same year, “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” b/w “So Fine” reached #8. In 1959, Chess Records issued “Moanin’ in the Moonlight”, Howlin’ Wolf’s first album, which was actually a compilation of previously released singles. The single remained his primary medium, however, and in 1960, he released two more singles: “Who’s Been Talking” b/w “Tell Me” and “Howlin’ For My Baby” b/w “Spoonful”. The most memorable of these tracks is “Spoonful”, which would eventually find its way into the set lists of British Invasion (and American) bands enamored with Chicago blues. But Howlin’ Wolf unleashed an even more memorable single in 1961, when he released “Wang Dang Doodle” b/w “Back Door Man”. This is today’s featured single.
“Wang Dang Doodle” was written by Willie Dixon, and he stated in his autobiography that of all the songs he wrote for Howlin’ Wolf, this is the one that he hated the most. Howlin’ Wolf did not think much of it either, apparently. This song was written relatively late in Dixon’s career, at a time when Dixon’s songwriting had evolved from rural blues to a more sophisticated form, and “Wang Dang Doodle” is indicative of this more urban style; it is essentially a party song with a rolling, exciting beat, based around a relatively simple (three chord) riff. The lyrics tell of a party, and from what we can tell, it’s going to be quite a rave-up: “A we gonna pitch a ball/Down to that union hall/We gonna romp and tromp till midnight/We gonna fuss and fight till daylight”. As Burnett’s trademark growl dominates the sound, the guitar and piano plod along, punctuated by a tambourine, which provides percussion in place of drums. Although Dixon and Burnett may not have thought much of the song, it obviously made an impression on other musicians, as it was covered by many artists, including Booker T and the MGs, Savoy Brown, Love Sculpture, the Grateful Dead, Koko Taylor, ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, the Hindu Love Gods and PJ Harvey amongst others.
The B-side of the single, “Back Door Man”, is probably even better known, thanks in no small part to the Doors’ cover version on their self-titled debut album. This song was also written by Willie Dixon, and it tells of infidelity, not from the perspective of the cuckold, but from the perspective of the interloper. The “back door man” of this song is a variant of a figure that has loomed large in folk and blues: a shadow-cloaked figure who does things he’s not supposed to do, a “midnight rambler” as it were. And our protagonist is not just there to explain himself, which he does, but to boast as well: “You men eat your dinner/Eat your pork and beans/I eat more chicken any man ever seen.” Dixon plays upon the appeal of a character that operates covertly, when everyone is asleep: And all your people/They’re trying to sleep/I’m out there makin’ with my midnight creep.” This version of the song features Otis Spann on piano, Abu Talib and Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums – the lineup which recorded many of Wolf’s classic tracks. This recording of the song “Back Door Man” features a three-chord riff, a blues tune in A7, and the chord progression is similar to that of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” and dates back to work songs sung during the construction of train tracks. It is also similar to Wolf’s one-chord songs, such as “Spoonful”. Like the A-side, “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Back Door Man” appeared on the 1962 album “Howlin’ Wolf (The Rocking Chair Album)”, as well as on other compilation albums.
The single (catalog #: 1777) was issued by Chess Records in 1961. It had no picture sleeve, and features a dark blue background, with “CHESS” written in big letters down the left side of the label, the track information across the top, and the artist and catalog number across the bottom. Publishing information is on the right side. Now in his fifties, Howlin’ Wolf would remain prolific throughout the 1960’s, releasing 16 singles during that decade. In 1969, he released “The Howlin’ Wolf Album”, which featured psychedelic electric guitar re-recordings of some of his classic songs. He was active in the 1970’s as well, traveling to London in 1970 to record the “Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions” (1971) album with Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood and others. “Message To The Young”, another album of acid rock, was also released that year. He recorded his last album for Chess, “The Back Door Wolf”, in 1973. He died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois on January 10, 1976.
Howlin’ Wolf performing “How Many More Years” in 1966