Killing Floor (Howlin' Wolf song)

"Killing Floor" is a 1964 song by American blues singer-songwriter and guitarist Howlin' Wolf. Called "one of the defining classics of Chicago electric blues",[1] "Killing Floor" has been recorded by various artists and has been acknowledged by the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

"Killing Floor"
Killing Floor single cover.jpg
Single by Howlin' Wolf
Released1964 (1964)–1965
Format7-inch 45 rpm record
RecordedChicago, August 1964
Songwriter(s)Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf
Producer(s)Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Howlin' Wolf singles chronology
"My Country Sugar Mama"
"Killing Floor"
"Tell Me What I Have Done"

Original songEdit

Howlin' Wolf recorded "Killing Floor" in 1964 and it was released as a single. According to blues guitarist and longtime Wolf associate Hubert Sumlin, the song uses the killing floor – the area of a slaughterhouse where animals are killed – as a metaphor or allegory for male-female relationships: "Down on the killing floor – that means a woman has you down, she went out of her way to try to kill you. She at the peak of doing it, and you got away now ... You know people have wished they was dead – you been treated so bad that sometimes you just say, 'Oh Lord have mercy.' You’d rather be six feet in the ground."[2]

"Killing Floor" is an upbeat twelve-bar blues with an "instantly familiar" guitar riff provided by Sumlin.[1] Backing Howlin' Wolf (vocals) and Sumlin (electric guitar) are Lafayette Leake (piano), Buddy Guy (acoustic guitar), Andrew "Blueblood" McMahon (bass), Sam Lay (drums), Arnold Rogers (tenor sax), and Donald Hankins (baritone sax).[3] The song appears on several Howlin' Wolf compilation albums, including his 1966 album The Real Folk Blues.

Jimi Hendrix renditionEdit

Jimi Hendrix performed "Killing Floor" early in his career, including early vocal performances with Curtis Knight and the Squires in 1965 and 1966. Shortly after arriving in England in September 1966, Hendrix performed the song when he sat in with Cream. "Killing Floor" was included in the set list of the newly formed Jimi Hendrix Experience. The song was often a set opener, and Hendrix played the song at a faster tempo, with a different rhythm guitar and bass line. Early recordings include live versions from October 1966 in Paris (The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set), March 1967 in the BBC studios (BBC Sessions), and June 1967 at the Monterey International Pop Festival (Jimi Plays Monterey).

Led Zeppelin versionEdit

Led Zeppelin performed "Killing Floor" live in 1968 and 1969, and it became the basis for "The Lemon Song". In some early performances Robert Plant introduced the song as "Killing Floor"; an early UK pressing of Led Zeppelin II showed the title as "Killing Floor" and was credited to Chester Burnett (Howlin' Wolf's legal name). Led Zeppelin's version was performed at a much slower tempo (until the bridge) and with some different lyrics. After legal action by Howlin' Wolf's publisher, his name was added to the credits for "The Lemon Song".

Recognition and legacyEdit

In 1991, "Killing Floor" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classics of Blues Recordings" category.[3] The panel identified it as "one of Wolf’s most recognizable songs. It has long been a staple among many blues bands and ranks as one of Wolf’s most often-covered songs, by both blues and rock acts."[3]

In addition to the Hendrix and Led Zeppelin adaptations, the Electric Flag, a blues-rock group led by guitarist Mike Bloomfield, recorded the song[4] for their 1968 album A Long Time Comin'. Their version was also featured on the CBS sampler album, The Rock Machine Turns You On. The song opens with an excerpt of a speech by then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, which is promptly cut off by the music amid derisive laughter. In 1969, Albert King recorded it for his Years Gone By album. Hubert Sumlin performed it with Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray at the 2004, 2007 and 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. Joe Bonamassa performed it on the live album Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks in 2015.

The British blues rock band, Killing Floor, took their name from the song's title.[5]


  1. ^ a b Janovitz, Bill. "Howlin' Wolf: Killing Floor – Song Review". AllMusic. Retrieved November 24, 2010.
  2. ^ Devi, Debra. "The Language of the Blues". Guitar International. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Blues Foundation (November 10, 2016). "1991 Hall of Fame Inductees: Killing Floor – Howlin' Wolf (Chess, 1964)". The Blues Foundation. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
  4. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 52 - The Soul Reformation: Phase Three, Soul Music at the Summit. [Part 8]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries. Track 4.
  5. ^ Bryan Thomas. "Killing Floor | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 12 February 2016.