Little Red Rooster
|"The Red Rooster"|
|Single by Howlin' Wolf|
|B-side||"Shake for Me"|
|Format||7" 45 rpm record|
|Recorded||Chicago, June 1961|
|Label||Chess (no. 1804)|
|Producer(s)||Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon|
|Howlin' Wolf singles chronology|
"Little Red Rooster" (or "The Red Rooster" as it was first titled) is a song that is a blues standard. Although it is a Chicago blues, the song is rooted in the Delta blues tradition and the theme "there is no peace in the barnyard after the rooster is gone" is derived from folklore. It is credited to American blues arranger and songwriter Willie Dixon and is adapted from earlier songs. First to record Dixon's song was Howlin' Wolf in 1961, using the original title "The Red Rooster".
"The Red Rooster" is one in a string of Howlin' Wolf tunes written by Willie Dixon in the later part of his career that were later popularized by rock artists — "Back Door Man" (the Doors), "Spoonful" (Cream), and "I Ain't Superstitious" (Jeff Beck Group). As "Little Red Rooster", a variety of musicians have interpreted it, including Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones, who both had important record chart successes with the song.
Willie Dixon's "The Red Rooster"/"Little Red Rooster" is "to some degree an adaptation and aggregation of motifs from previous records". The rooster is a theme in several blues songs from the 1920s and 1930s and two songs in particular have been identified as precursors. Influential Delta blues musician Charlie Patton's 1929 "Banty Rooster Blues" (Paramount 12792) is seen as "obviously inspiring" it, specifically with the verses "What you want with a rooster, he won't crow 'fore day" and "I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark", which are analogous to Dixon's "I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow 'fore day" and "Oh the dogs begin to bark..." Some of the lyrics to Memphis Minnie's 1936 acoustic combo blues "If You See My Rooster (Please Run Him Home)" (Vocalion 03285) are also similar: "If you see my rooster, please run 'im on back home", compared to Dixon's "If you see my little red rooster, please drive 'im home". Additionally, "the vocal melodies of these recordings are somewhat similar to one another". Memphis Minnie's recording also includes a simulated rooster crow, which later became a feature of several recordings of "Little Red Rooster".
In the post-war era, Margie Day with the Griffin Brothers recorded "Little Red Rooster", an uptempo jump blues, in 1950 (Dot 1019). An early review described her song as "pack[ing] a load of oomph into this tangy up blues, with okay combo boogie in back". In addition to the new musical setting, Day's lyrics include "Got a little red rooster, and man how he can crow... He's a boss of the barnyard, any ol' place he goes"; Dixon's song uses the line "Keep everything in the barnyard, upset in every way". The original Dot single lists the songwriters as "Griffin-Griffin". Day's song was a hit, reaching number five in Billboard's Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records in 1951.
Howlin' Wolf song
Delta blues musician Charlie Patton was an early influence on Howlin' Wolf and he recorded adaptations of several Patton songs, including "Spoonful", "Smokestack Lightning", and "Saddle My Pony". Relatives and early friends remembered Howlin' Wolf playing "something like 'The Red Rooster' in the 1930s. Evelyn Sumlin [wife of guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who played on Wolf's recording] said, 'A bunch of the songs that Willie Dixon did over [arranged], Wolf had already done. But Willie Dixon took the credit for them'".
In June 1961 in Chicago, Howlin' Wolf recorded "The Red Rooster". The song is performed as a slow blues in the key of A. Although it has been noted as a twelve-bar blues, the changes in the first section vary due to extra beats. Lyrically, it follows the classic AAB blues pattern, i.e., two repeated lines followed by a second. The opening verse echoes Charlie Patton's second verse:
- Well, I got a little red rooster, too lazy to crow 'fore day (2×)
- Keep everything in the barnyard, upset in every way
Howlin' Wolf's vocal uses a "master singer's attention to phrasing and note choice, milking out maximum emotion and nuance from the melody".
A key element of the song is the distinctive slide guitar, played by Howlin' Wolf, with backing by long-time accompanist Hubert Sumlin on electric guitar. It is only one of two of the many songs recorded by Howlin' Wolf in the early 1960s that include his guitar playing. Described as "slinky" and "sly", it weaves in and out of the vocal lines and "provides the backbone of the song". The other musicians include Johnny Jones on piano, Willie Dixon on double bass, and Sam Lay on drums and possibly Jimmy Rogers also on guitar. Dixon's and Lay's parts are suitably understated, with Dixon mostly only playing the tonic or dominant on the first and third beats and Lay staying in the background.
"The Red Rooster" was issued by Chess Records in October 1961 backed with "Shake for Me", also recorded during the same session. Neither song, nor his other songs from the period now considered to be among his best-known, entered the record charts. Both were included on his acclaimed 1962 album Howlin' Wolf, often called the Rockin' Chair album. "The Red Rooster" also appears on many Howlin' Wolf compilations, including Howlin' Wolf: The Chess Box and Howlin' Wolf: His Best — The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection.
Howlin' Wolf later recorded "The Red Rooster" with several rock figures (Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts) for his 1971 album The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions. At the beginning of recording, Howlin' Wolf can be heard attempting to explain the timing of the song, because as Wyman later explained, "we were kind of playing it backwards". Finally, Clapton (joined in by the others) encourages him to play it on guitar so "I can follow you if I can see what you're doing". Despite their efforts to get it right, according to Wyman, "the Chess people ended up using the old 'backwards' take anyway".
Sam Cooke rendition
In February 1963, American soul singer Sam Cooke recorded his interpretation of Willie Dixon's song, calling it "Little Red Rooster". Dixon's lyrics are delivered in Cooke's articulate vocal style, but with an additional verse:
- I tell you that he keeps all the hens, fighting among themselves
- Keeps all the hens, fighting among themselves
- He don't want no hen in the barnyard, layin' eggs for nobody else
Cooke's musical arrangement follows a typical twelve-bar blues structure, but it is more upbeat than Howlin' Wolf's and "somewhat more relaxed and respectable". It has been notated as a moderate blues (92 beats per minute) in 12/8 time in the key of A. The recording took place in Los Angeles with a small group of session musicians. A young Billy Preston uses "playful organ vocalizing", i.e., organ lines that imitate the sounds of a rooster crowing and, following the lyrics, dogs barking and hounds howling. Also backing Cooke are Ray Johnson on piano and Hal Blaine on drums (Barney Kessel has also been mentioned as the guitarist). The song was a hit, reaching number seven on Billboard's Hot R&B singles chart. It was also a crossover hit, reaching number eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. "Little Red Rooster" was included on Cooke's 1963 album Night Beat, which reached number 62 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Rolling Stones version
|"Little Red Rooster"|
|Single by The Rolling Stones|
|B-side||"Off the Hook"|
|Released||13 November 1964|
|Format||7" 45 rpm record|
|Recorded||Regent Sound, London, September 2, 1964 and/or Chess Studios, Chicago, November 1964|
|Label||Decca (no. F 12014)|
|Producer(s)||Andrew Loog Oldham|
|The Rolling Stones UK singles chronology|
The Rolling Stones began their career by playing blues songs and were particularly influenced by Chess Records Chicago artists, including Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters (they took their name from a song by the latter). Willie Dixon later recalled "When the Rolling Stones came to Chess studios, they had already met me and doing my songs, especially 'Little Red Rooster'". Early Stones manager Giorgio Gomelsky remembered an afternoon in London:
|“||There was Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy [Williamson II] and Willie Dixon, the three of them sitting on this sofa... Willie was just singing and tapping on the back of the chair and Sonny Boy would play the harmonica and they would do new songs. To a degree, that's why people know those songs and recorded them later. I remember '300 Pounds of Joy', 'Little Red Rooster', 'You Shook Me' were all songs Willie passed on at that time... Jimmy Page came often, the Yardbirds, Brian Jones..."||”|
Dixon added "I left lots of tapes when I was over there [in London... I told] them anybody who wanted to could go and make a blues song. That's how the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds got their songs". It has been noted, "In many ways, this is Brian Jones' record. [He was] always the biggest blues purist in the band".
Although they had already recorded several Chess songs, according to Bill Wyman, "Little Red Rooster" was "a slow, intense blues song... [that producer Andrew Loog Oldham argued was] totally uncommercial and wrong for our new-found fame... the tempo made the track virtually undanceable". Mick Jagger commented:
|“||The reason we recorded 'Little Red Rooster' isn't because we want to bring blues to the masses. We've been going on and on about blues, so we thought it was about time we stopped talking and did something about it. We liked that particular song, so we released it. We're not on the blues kick as far as recording goes. The next record will be entirely different, just as all the others have been".||”|
Composition and recording
The Rolling Stones' version of "Little Red Rooster" has been described as "a fairly faithful version [of the original]". It is performed as a moderately slow (74 bpm) blues in the key of G. Although their arrangement has been described as an "ultra-simple 1/4/5 blues pattern", they sometimes vary the changes, but not in the same manner as Howlin' Wolf. Jagger uses the lyrics from the original (omitting Cooke's extra verse), but makes one important change — instead of "I got a little red rooster", he sings "I am the little red rooster", although the later verse reverts to "If you see my little red rooster". Instrumentally, "Bill Wyman imitat[es] Dixon's acoustic bass" and Charlie Watts later explained that "the drum part was like the fabulous Sam Cooke's version" (played by Hal Blaine). Keith Richards adds a second guitar part, with "the juxtaposition of acoustic guitar and electric slide all mak[ing] for something richer and warmer than any blues they had ever attempted before".
However, it is Jones' contributions that are usually singled out. One biographer writes "it is his [Jones] playing that makes the record via both the cawing bottleneck that is its most prominent feature and his closing harmonica". Another adds "It was his [Jones'] masterpiece, his inspired guitar howling like a hound, barking like a dog, crowing like a rooster" (similar to Billy Preston's "playful organ vocalizing"). Wyman wrote: "I believe 'Rooster' provided Brian Jones with one of his finest hours.
Two different dates and recording locations have been given. Wyman recalled that the song was recorded September 2, 1964 at Regent Sound in London, while the session information for the 1989 Rolling Stones box set Singles Collection: The London Years lists "November 1964 Chess Studios, Chicago". According to one biographer, "The boys entered the Regent Sound Studios on September 2nd  to resume work on... 'Little Red Rooster'... [and later on November 8, 1964 at Chess] some unverified sources [indicate] the boys also put the final touches to their next British single 'Little Red Rooster'". Another indicates that Brian Jones was left to later record overdubs.
Charts and releases
"Little Red Rooster" was released on Friday November 13, 1964 and reached number one in the UK Singles Chart on December 5, 1964, where it stayed for one week. It remains to this day the only time a blues song has ever topped the British pop charts. Reportedly, "Little Red Rooster" was Brian Jones' favorite Stones single and Wyman noted "It realized a cherished ambition [of Jones] to put blues music at the top of the charts, and meant his guilt of having 'sold out' completely to pop fame was diminished". It was the band's last cover song to be released as a single during the 1960s; subsequent efforts were Jagger/Richards compositions.
The Rolling Stones performed "Little Red Rooster" on several television programs in 1964 and 1965, including Ready Steady Go! (UK), Big Beat '65 (Australia), and The Ed Sullivan Show (US), Shindig! (US), Shivaree (US) (at their insistence, Howlin' Wolf also performed on Shindig!, where he was introduced by Brian Jones). The song was included on their third American album, The Rolling Stones, Now!, released in February 1965. "Little Red Rooster" appears on several Rolling Stones compilation albums, including the UK version of Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), Singles Collection: The London Years, Rolled Gold: The Very Best of the Rolling Stones, and GRRR!. Live versions appear on Love You Live and Flashpoint (with Eric Clapton on slide guitar).
No U.S. single release
Bill Wyman later wrote in his book Stone Alone that "on December 18, 1964, news came from America that 'Little Red Rooster' was banned from record release because of its 'sexual connotations'". This has been repeated and embellished to include that it had been banned by or from American radio stations; however, Sam Cooke's version with nearly the same lyrics had been a Top 40 radio crossover pop hit one year earlier. Additionally, the Rolling Stones' "Little Red Rooster" was included on Los Angeles radio station KRLA's (at the time the number-one Top-40 radio station in the second largest market in the U.S.) playlist from December 9, 1964 to February 5, 1965. Radio personality Bob Eubanks wrote in his weekly Record Review column for January 1, 1965 "'Little Red Rooster', by the Stones, is still KRLA's exclusive... Don't fret, though, it may still be released in this country".
"Mona (I Need You Baby)" from the Rolling Stones' first UK album was also being aired and considered for their next single, but with "Time Is on My Side", "Heart of Stone", and "The Last Time" on the U.S. charts during this same period, neither "Little Red Rooster" or "Mona" were released as singles. However, they were included on Rolling Stones, Now! (by contrast, only "Little Red Rooster" and "The Last Time" were released as singles in the UK during this period). Although it reached number one in the UK for one week, Jagger later commented, "'I still dig "Little Red Rooster", but it didn't sell', suggest[ing] that actual units shifted were not that impressive compared with those of their previous 45s".
Recognition and influence
Howlin' Wolf's original "The Red Rooster" is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll". As "Little Red Rooster", it has been called a blues standard and a "classic song [that] has been recorded countless times, a warhorse for most late-'60s and 1970s classic rock acts". To illustrate their variety, some of these include: the song's author Willie Dixon, Luther Allison, Eddie C. Campbell, Cuby and the Blizzards, the Doors (with John Sebastian), Grateful Dead, Ronnie Hawkins, Z.Z. Hill, Arno Hintjens, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pappo, the Persuasions, Lucky Peterson, Los Piojos, Pussy Galore, the Roosters, Otis Rush, Carla Thomas, Big Mama Thornton, and James Blood Ulmer.
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