Howlin Wolf Biography
Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), better known as Howlin’ Wolf or sometimes, The Howlin’ Wolf, was an influential blues singer, songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player.
Born in White Station near West Point, Mississippi, he was named after Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the USA, and was nicknamed Big Foot and Bull Cow in his early years because of his massive size. He explained the origin of the name Howlin’ Wolf thus: “I got that from my grandfather [John Jones]. He used to tell me stories about the wolves in that part of the country” and warn him that if he misbehaved, they would “get him”. As a youth he listened to Charley Patton, who taught him the rudiments of guitar, as well as to the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, whose famous “blue yodel” Burnett integrated into his singing style. His harmonica playing was modelled after that of Rice Miller, (also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II) who had lived with his sister for a time and taught him how to play. He played with Robert Johnson and Willie Brown in his youth.
He farmed during the 1930s, served in the United States Army as a radioman in Seattle during World War II, and by 1948 had formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and M. T. Murphy, harmonica-player Junior Parker, a pianist named Destruction, and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, alternating between performing and pitching farm equipment, and auditioned for Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service in 1951.
According to the documentary film The Howlin’ Wolf Story, Howlin’ Wolf’s parents broke up when he was young. His very religious mother Gertrude threw him out of the house for refusing to work around the farm while still a child; he then moved in with his uncle, Will Young, who treated him badly. When he was 13, he ran away and walked 95 miles barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home within his father’s large family. During the peak of his success, he returned from Chicago to his home town to see his mother again, but was driven to tears when she rebuffed him and refused to take any money he offered her, saying it was from his playing the “Devil’s music”.
Howlin’ Wolf quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included both Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he was simultaneously signed with the Bihari brothers at Modern Records and to Leonard Chess’ Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin’ Wolf’s How Many More Years in August 1951; Wolf also recorded sides for Modern, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and Wolf settled in Chicago, Illinois. He began playing with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, whose terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett’s huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. In the mid-’50s Wolf released “Evil” and “Smokestack Lightnin'”, both major R&B hits.
His 1962 album Howlin’ Wolf is one of the most famous and influential blues records, known for its cover illustration of an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Goin’ Down Slow”, “Spoonful” and Little Red Rooster, songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig along with the Rolling Stones, who had covered “Little Red Rooster” on an early album. He was often backed by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who authored such Howlin’ Wolf standards as “Spoonful”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Back Door Man”, “Evil”, “Wang Dang Doodle” (primarily known as a Koko Taylor hit), and others.
In 1971, Howlin’ Wolf and his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin travelled to London to record the Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions LP. British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts played alongside the Wolf on this album. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
Unlike many other blues musicians, after he left his impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin’ Wolf was always financially successful. He described himself as “the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta” to Chicago, which he did, in his own car on the Blues Highway and with four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black bluesman of the time. In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling, and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as “loose women”, to which so many of his peers fell prey.
Wolf met his future wife, Lillie, while playing in a Chicago club one night when she just happened to attend. She and her family were urban and educated, and not involved to what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Wolf says he was, he pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. They had two daughters, Bettye and Barbara.
After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.
At 6 foot, 6 inches (198cm) and close to 300 pounds (136 kg), he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the “classic” 1950s blues singers. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice has been compared to “the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road”. Although the two were reportedly not that different in actual personality, this roughedged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the more genteel but still powerful presentation of his contemporary, Muddy Waters, to describe the two pillars of the Chicago Blues representing the two sides of the music.
Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs and Muddy Waters are usually regarded as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked of Chester Arthur Burnett, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’ ” In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #51 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Chester Burnett “Howlin Wolf” is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois, USA Plot: Section 18, right by the road. His gravestone has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.