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Rolling Stones songs: Little Red Rooster
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The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl/ Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl…
Written by: Willie Dixon
Recorded: Regent IBC Studios, London, England, Sept. 2 1964
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012
This is a blues standard written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961 as “The Red Rooster.” The Stones, who recorded a lot of blues covers in their early years, first heard it from Howlin’ Wolf and Sam Cooke. Released as a single in the UK, it was their second #1 hit in that territory, following “It’s All Over Now.”
Brian Jones played the slide guitar on this track. A founding member of the band, he was their lead guitarist until drug problems and conflict with his bandmates forced him out of the group in 1969 just weeks before he was found dead in his swimming pool. Danny Garcia, director of the documentary Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones, cites his work on “Little Red Rooster” as one of his key contributions. “Brian was a pioneer of the slide guitar in the UK,” Garcia told Songfacts. “His goal was to help spread the blues in the UK and then in the rest of the world, something he accomplished early on.”
The Stones’ manager, Andrew Oldham, wanted them to record this in order to keep their image as a tough, naughty band, essentially the opposite of The Beatles. Their previous singles in the UK were “It’s All Over Now,” “Not Fade Away,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” all of which were successful, but moved them away from the blues and into a more pop direction. Recording this raw blues number was for their reputation.
You would think an American blues song about a rooster on the prowl wouldn’t have much hit potential in the UK, but the Stones camp convinced their label, Decca Records, that it did, and remarkably, it went to #1. The band may have gotten the same results recording “Mary Had A Little Lamb”; they were red hot in the UK at the time, so advance orders for the single ensured it would be a hit. Reflecting on the single reaching #1, Mick Jagger said in 2016: “It’s crackers. You know, it’s crazy. I mean, that was a weirdo thing, ’cause we could’ve done anything at that time and it would’ve been #1. That was the point.”
This wasn’t issued as a single in the US, where the Rolling Stones were just starting to make their mark. The more radio-friendly “Heart Of Stone” was issued there instead.
Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts recorded this with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and Howlin’ Wolf in 1970 for Wolf’s album The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, which was released the following year. Outtakes from the session were included on the 1991 compilation Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box.
The Stones’ 1991 live album Flashpoint contains a version with Eric Clapton on slide guitar taken from a 1989 show in Shea Stadium, New York.
Sam Cooke released this as a single in 1963 with Billy Preston on organ mimicking the bark of the dogs and the howl of the hounds. Cooke’s version, which was the first to be titled “Little Red Rooster,” hit #11 in the US and went to #2 on the R&B chart.
Other artists to cover this song include Big Mama Thornton, Carla Thomas, José Feliciano, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley and Etta James. The Grateful Dead and their offshoots sometimes covered it in concert.
Keith Richards explained on the BBC 4 documentary Blues Britannia: Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? why the Stones decided to release this as a single: “We must have been wearing brass balls that day, when we decided to put that out as a single. I think we just thought it was our job to pay back, to give them what they’ve given us. They’ve given us the music and the friendship, and let’s stand up, be men, and give them a blues, and it went to #1…”
Keith continues: “Mr. Howlin’ Wolf, he didn’t mind at all. It was maybe a moment of bravado, in retrospect, but it worked. We have been blessed by the music that we listened to, and let’s see if we can actually spin it back around and make American white kids listen to ‘Little Red Rooster.’ You had it all the time, pal, you know. You just didn’t listen.”
Mick Jagger defended this song in 1964: “I don’t see why we should have to conform to any pattern. After all, wasn’t ‘Not Fade Away’ different from ‘It’s All Over Now’? We try to make all our singles different, and so far every one has been in a different tempo. This time, I didn’t want to do a fast beat number. If the fans don’t like it, then they don’t like it. I like it. It’s a straight blues and nobody’s ever done that. Except on albums. We thought just for a change we’d do a nice, straight blues on a single. What’s wrong with that?… Course (it’s) suitable for dancing. Charlie’s drumming makes it good for dancing – you can double up the beat for dancing, I reckon.”
This was engineered by Bill Farley, who engineered the Stones’ debut album in London in 1964. When they did more work in London on their return from the States throughout 1964, he was also the engineer (songs like “Congratulations,” “Grown Up Wrong,” “Under The Boardwalk”). He also engineered some Andrew Oldham Orchestra sessions that year.
The Rolling Stones gave credit to Howlin’ Wolf whenever possible and did what they could to introduce him to an American audience. When they debuted “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the ABC show Shindig! in 1965, they made sure Wolf was also on the program, performing his song “How Many More Years.” Before Wolf’s performance, The Stones chatted with the host to explain that he was the first to record “Little Red Rooster” and was one of their biggest influences.
From the Rolling Stones – All the Songs, The Story Behind Every Track book:
When writing “Little Red Rooster,” Willie Dixon drew on the work of the pioneers of country blues such as Charley Patton and Memphis Minnie, who had recorded “Banty Rooster Blues” (1929) and “If You See My Rooster” (1936), respectively, and even Blind Lemon Jefferson, who gave the world the provocative “Black Snake Moan” in 1927. Like his illustrious predecessors, Dixon handles the double entendre with consummate skill: I am the little red rooster… Keep everything in the farm yard upset in every way… Ain’t had no peace in the farm yard/Since my little red rooster’s been gone. The sexual metaphor is clear… “Little Red Rooster” was recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, accompanied by Hubert Sumlin (guitar), Johnny Jones (piano), Willie Dixon (double bass), Sam Lay (drums), and possibly Jimmy Rogers (guitar), in June 1961. It was released as a single with “Shake for Me” in October 1961 and appeared on the album Howlin’ Wolf the following year. Although it failed to chart, this
did not prevent it from becoming a modern blues standard covered by legions of performers from Sam Cooke to… the Rolling Stones.
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