"Spoonful" is a blues song written by Willie Dixon and first recorded in 1960 by Howlin' Wolf. Called "a stark and haunting work", it is one of Dixon's best known and most interpreted songs. Etta James had a pop and R&B record chart hit with "Spoonful" in 1961 and it was popularized in the later 1960s by the British rock group Cream.
Dixon's "Spoonful" is loosely based on "A Spoonful Blues", a song recorded in 1929 by Charley Patton (Paramount 12869), which is related to "All I Want Is A Spoonful" by Papa Charlie Jackson (1925) and "Cocaine Blues" by Luke Jordan (1927). The lyrics relate men's sometimes violent search to satisfy their cravings, with "a spoonful" used mostly as a metaphor for pleasures, which have been interpreted as sex, love, or drugs.
It could be a spoonful of coffee, it could be a spoonful of tea
But one little spoon of your precious love, is good enough for me
Men lies about that spoonful, some of them dies about that spoonful
Some of them cries about that spoonful, but everybody fight about that spoonful
"Spoonful" has a one-chord, modal blues structure found in other songs Willie Dixon wrote for Howlin' Wolf, such as "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Back Door Man" as well as in Wolf's own "Smokestack Lightning". It uses eight-bar vocal sections with twelve-bar choruses and is performed at a medium blues tempo in the key of E. Music critic Bill Janovitz describes it as "brutal, powerful Wolf bellowing in his raspy style. There are few recordings that equal the powerful force of 'Spoonful,' or, for that matter, any other Wolf/Dixon Chess side."
Backing Wolf on vocals are: longtime accompanist Hubert Sumlin on guitar; relative newcomer Freddie Robinson on second guitar; and Chess recording veterans Otis Spann on piano, Fred Below on drums, and Dixon on double-bass. It has been suggested that Freddie King contributed the second guitar on "Spoonful", but both Sumlin and Robinson insist it was Robinson. In 1962, the song was included on Wolf's second compilation album for Chess titled Howlin' Wolf.
In 1968, Wolf reluctantly re-recorded "Spoonful", along with several of his blues classics in Marshall Chess' attempt at updating Wolf's sound for the burgeoning rock market. Unlike his 1971 The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (Chess LP-60008) where he was backed by several rock stars, including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, here he was backed by relatively unknown studio session players. The resulting album, The Howlin' Wolf Album, with its "comically bombastic" arrangements and instrumentation, was a musical and commercial failure. Wolf offered his assessment in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine "Man ... that stuff's dogshit".
The British rock group Cream recorded "Spoonful" for their 1966 UK debut album, Fresh Cream. For the American release of Fresh Cream, "I Feel Free" was substituted for "Spoonful". The song was released in the US later in 1967 as a two-sided single (Atco 45-6522), but edited as Part 1 fades out as the instrumental break starts and Part 2 begins just before the third verse. The unedited studio version made its US album debut on the Best of Cream compilation in 1969.
Cream frequently played "Spoonful" in concert and the song evolved beyond the blues-rock form of the 1966 recording into a vehicle for extended improvised soloing influenced by the sixties San Francisco music scene. One such rendering, recorded at a Winterland concert and included on their 1968 album Wheels of Fire, lasts nearly seventeen minutes.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" as one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll". It is ranked number 219 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". In 2010, the song was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame "Classics of Blues Recordings" category, noting that "Otis Rush has stated that Dixon presented 'Spoonful' to him, but the song didn't suit Rush's tastes and so it ended up with Wolf, and soon thereafter with Etta James".