Every week Rich Terfry looks back at a great song from the good ol’ days. Howlin' Wolf was a rock star before rock and roll was invented. In fact, many of his songs are credited with shaping rock and roll as we know it.
One of Howlin' Wolf's best known songs is called "Smokestack Lightning." He recorded it for the legendary blues label Chess in 1956. He recorded an earlier version of the song in 1951 under the name "Crying At Daybreak."
But the song goes back even further than that. It had been part of his live repertoire going back to the '30s, in the days when he played with blues pioneer Charley Patton. Like many blues songs, it draws on other songs that came before it. Songs by Tommy Johnson, The Mississippi Sheiks and one of Charley Patton's old numbers called "Moon Going Down."
Wolf said the inspiration for the song came from watching trains at night. He once said, "We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning."
The song was wildly popular with early rock and rollers and by the early '60s, it was a rock staple, having been covered by The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Who, The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, to name a few. Other legendary blues figures made it part of their repertoires as well: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and many more.
The song was honored by The Grammy Hall Of Fame for its historical significance back in 1999. It's also listed in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the songs that shaped the genre.
A bona fide pre-rock and roll classic, here's the entire story behind "Smokestack Lightning" by the mighty Howlin' Wolf.
Here are some other great editions of Rear-View Mirror:
Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street"
Roy Orbison, "In Dreams"
Foggy Hogtown Boys, "Man of Constant Sorrow"
Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here"
Neil Young, "Cortez The Killer"
Bob Dylan, "Subterraneon Homesick Blues"
Little Eva, "Loco-Motion"
Elvis Costello, "Watching the Detectives"
Jimmy Cliff, "The Harder They Come"
The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony"
Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly with his Song"
R.E.M., "Radio Free Europe"
Radiohead, "No Surprises"
Led Zeppelin, "Ramble On"
Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"
Rolling Stones, "Beast of Burden"
John Cougar Mellencamp, "Pink Houses"
on Jun 12, 2012