Wolf Tracks – ‘How Many More Years’ / ‘No Place To Go’ / ‘You Gonna Wreck My Life’

Chester Burnett’s first record, ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ backed with ‘How Many More Years’, was recorded by Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Studio in Tennessee in July of 1951.

It was a rare two sided hit with ‘How Many More Years’ proving to be the more durable of the two in the decades since its release.

Despite being alone in a studio, Wolf and the band play with the same force and raw energy required to make themselves heard in packed wooden floored juke joint.  Willie Johnson’s amp is turned up to the edge of distortion; Albert Williams demonstrates that the piano is in fact a percussion instrument and Willie Steele’s drums boom like an army of blue coat men pounding on the door to raid the joint.

The Wolf then huffs (sings) and puffs (blows his harmonica) with the strength to make himself heard over the band and Sam Philips captures it all on tape.

How Many More Years’ (2:43)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbZRA1pOhn4

The record was released by Chess (credited to “The Howlin’ Wolf”) and within three years Wolf had signed with the label and moved to Chicago.

For his first session there, Chess allowed him to keep his drummer Earl Phillips and filled out the band with some of their ace session players: Otis Spann on piano; Willie Dixon on bass and Lee Cooper on guitar.  Among the five songs cut that day was ‘No Place to Go’ a lyrical variation of ‘How Many More Years’ credited to Dixon.

The music for ‘How Many More Years’ smoothes the edges of the lyrics, allowing one to imagine a couple who fight fiercely, and whose “make-up” sex has an even greater ferocity, which is what keeps them together.

Dixon’s arrangement strips everything down (Earl Philips has claimed credit for the beat), with each of the musicians pounding it home like a work gang of men driving stakes for a circus tent.

Dixon also personalized the lyrics, with the middle-aged man being replaced by a younger one, like a horse being put out to pasture.

No Place To Go’ (2:58)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqDhCeuFsg0

An alternate take of the song was also done that day, one which streamlined the number even further, but found room for a pungent little solo from Cooper.

This version would see release five years later as the B-side of a ‘Natchez Burning’.

You Gonna Wreck My Life’ (2:39)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3_cRmOmDQ0

(Over the years, many compilations of Wolf’s Chess recordings featured ‘No Place To Go’ under the alternate’s title ‘You Gonna Wreck My Life’.  I believe first compilation to contain the alternate take was “Howlin’ Wolf: The Complete Recordings 1951 – 1969” a seven CD box set on the Charly label in the U.K. in 1993.)

Both ‘How Many More Years’ and ‘No Place To Go’ were included on the 1964 U.K. collection ‘Moanin’ in the Moonlight’ (Marble Arch) a compilation of Wolf’s earliest material for Chess and this is most likely where the British bands covering the songs first heard them.

More confusion with the titles (possibly purposeful, as no writer’s credit is provided) was sown with The T-Bones’ debut single in November of ’64.  Giorgio Gomelsky produced this fairly faithful cover of ‘No Place to Go’ (did he first offer this to The Yardbirds, his biggest group at the time?) and released it under the title ‘How Many More Times’

The T-Bones

Gary Farr: vocal & harmonica /

Winston Vince Whetherall: lead guitar /

Andy McKechnie: rhythm guitar / Stuart Parks: bass /

Roston “Andy” Steele: drums

A-side, (British) Columbia 45 (1964)

‘How Many More Times’ (3:31)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziBt6q5n8dk

In the summer of ’67, during a residency at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel, the first version of Taste cut seven songs as a calling card in their search for a record deal including a cover of ‘How Many More Years’.

Taste

Rory Gallagher: guitar & vocal /

Eric Kitteringham: bass / Norman D’Amery: drums

Demo recorded at Maritime Hotel, Belfast, Ireland (circa July 1967)

‘How Many More Years’ (3:26)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHiOm77CqYw

The number seems an odd choice for the nineteen year old Gallagher.  The bass dominates and he dutifully plays the fills, but one can feel him straining at the bit, wanting to unleash all emotion that he is too young to convey vocally, with his guitar.  At the brisk pace that the number is played, he had the time.  Instead of using the time for a guitar, or even harmonica break (see ‘Wee Wee Baby’ from the same session), after finishing the original lyrics, he reprises the second verse and then the first; takes a quick break, and then finishes with another reprise of the first verse.

While he wisely never returned to this number, Wolf’s version of ‘Sugar Mama’ became an early signature piece for Gallagher.

 

A month later, another brilliant young guitarist fronting a new band was recorded at The Marquee Club performing ‘No Place To Go’.

Interestingly, the band had previously recorded the number (possibly in April of that year) as one of four tracks that they too cut as demos.  Unfortunately, those recordings have yet to surface.

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac

Peter Green: guitar & vocal /

Bob Brunning: bass / Mick Fleetwood: drums

Recorded August 15, 1967 – The Marquee Club, London

Intro (0:21) / ‘No Place To Go’ (4:00)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_qrIwsm0H8

While replicating the original’s one chord stomp, Green too pushes the tempo a bit faster.  Sounding jovial during the intro, the moment the song starts, Green “becomes” the bitter lover being kicked out of his girlfriend’s house.

Wolf’s vocal betrayed a wounded pride.  He “accepts” his fate; he will leave (he has no choice) but he wants her to understand the wrong that she is doing.

Green’s vocal is more like the instinctive rage of a wounded animal.  Hurting, it lashes out at everything around it.

The guitar break after the second break verse could be him smashing whatever mementos or pictures come to hand.  At twenty-one, he shouldn’t be able to pull off the lines about his being “…old and grey”, yet the music and the vehemence in his voice sells it.

Wolf’s farewell is a final plea for sympathy; Green makes it feel like a threat; he is leaving now, but he will be out there, somewhere, and one day, he just may come back.

It was possibly not long after this that Green entered the studio and cut the number again, putting a whole new spin on it.

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac

Peter Green: guitar, vocal & harmonica /

John McVie: bass / Mick Fleetwood: drums

Recorded CBS Studio, New Bond Street or Decca Studio, West Hampstead, London – exact date unknown

‘No Place To Go’ (3:20)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOuQj1AuKxs

The music and Green’s vocal have lost their snarl here; the signature riff now evokes the steady, driving rhythm of the train that is carrying the singer away.  As he watches his world slipping away with no set destination before him, his final parting unspools in his memory.

The number kicks off with just Green’s guitar and harmonica; Vernon’s production brings the drums to the forefront (not always a good idea with Fleetwood) but this proves to be one of his finest early performances, prodding Green to reflect on his situation like a guilty conscious.

Making the harmonica the main instrument also brings out the melancholy of the number, evoking the spirit of Wolf’s original recording.

Green then shades the number a little darker by dropping the final verse and ending on the reason for his expulsion (in his mind): he got old, and his woman “…can’t stand me no more”.

Green was an instinctual, improvisational musician, especially when playing live, but these are such radically different interpretations that they sound almost like two different songs.

 

As sometimes happens, three wildly disparate versions of ‘How Many More Years’ were put to tape towards the end of 1968, with all seeing release the following year:

Bluesman turned soul singer Junior Wells released a two verse version on his “Sings Live at the Golden Bear” LP (recorded September 18, 1968)

The Climax Chicago Blues Band recorded what must be the most cheerful version of the number, anchored by an almost boogie woogie piano arrangement (recorded between September and November of ’68)

And finally, in October of that year, Led Zeppelin cut a song under the title ‘How Many More Times’ which became the closing number of their debut LP.

The Yardbirds, by then a four-piece featuring Jimmy Page on guitar, had added a medley of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ / ‘How Many More Years’ to their set lists at some of their final shows in the spring of 1968.

Page’s new group, formed in August, took the clay of Wolf’s song and breathed life into a new creation, with Page’s atmospheric production paying tribute to the haunting sound of the original Wolf / Dixon collaboration.

Here is a clip of Led Zeppelin performing the number live on Danish television in March of 1969

How Many More Times’ (12: 21)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEPog_WdPE4

Both songs have been recorded and performed many more times in the intervening decades, most appropriately with an eighty-three year old B.B. King paying tribute to his contemporary Howlin’ Wolf with a cover of ‘How Many More Years’ on the CD “One Kind Favor” in 2008.

The Wolf lives.

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