Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four”

Roosevelt Sykes

“Forty-Four” is a blues standard whose origins have been traced back to early 20th century Louisiana. In its earliest forms, the piece was an instrumental piano blues sometimes referred to as “The Forty-Fours.” Little Brother Montgomery, who is usually credited with the development of the piece, taught it to a blues pianist called Lee Green, who taught it to Roosevelt Sykes. It was Roosevelt Sykes who provided the lyrics and first recorded the song in 1929. It was his first release and the song became his signature piece. Through numerous adaptations and recordings over the years, ”Forty Four” has remained a vibrant part of the blues lexicon to this day.

In 1954, when Howlin’ Wolf recorded his version of “Forty Four”, the song took on a whole new feel. Backing Wolf, who sang and played harmonica, were Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams on electric guitars, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on upright bass, and Earl Phillips on drums. Together they transformed “Forty Four” into a driving Chicago blues with prominent agressive guitar lines. However, it is Earl Phillips’ performance that drives the song, with an insistent martial shuffle on the snare drum and a bass drum that slams down like a hammer. Given Howlin’ Wolf’s gruff and overpowering vocal, the overall effect was described by one critic at that time as “menacing.”

Howlin’ Wolf and his band

When I was 21 years old, my brother bought a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and I recorded some of my favourite songs with three other musician friends in the basement of our home. I was more and more into the blues at that age and one of the songs we recorded was ”Forty-Four.” Amazingly, those recordings still exist and I can hear the slightly altered Hubert Sumlin guitar part that I had come up with for that recording. I kept this altered guitar part on our recording. Lowell George (1945-1979) introduced a slide guitar on Little Feat’s version of “Forty Four”, which I’ve also used here.

Wolf only sang two verses in his landmark recording and I’ve added two more. The third verse is taken from Roosevelt Syke’s 1929 recording of “Forty Four.” The last verse is taken from Wolf’s great trance blues classic, “I Asked For Water.”

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars, slide guitar, MIDI guitar (piano)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums, buffalo drum

Forty-Four

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