Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howlin' Wolf, was an influential American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player. He was born in West Point, Mississippi, in an area now known as White Station.
With a booming voice and looming physical presence, Burnett is commonly ranked among the leading performers in electric blues; musician and critic Cub Koda declared, "no one could match Howlin' Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits". A number of songs written or popularized by Burnett—such as "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful"—have become blues and blues rock standards.
He was a large man and had an imposing presence, with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s Chicago blues singers. This rough-edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less crude but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters.
Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs, and Muddy Waters are usually regarded in retrospect as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked, "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 51st on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".
Howlin' Wolf was born on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi, near West Point. He was named Chester Arthur Burnett, after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States. His physique garnered him the nicknames of Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow as a young man: he was 6 feet 3 inches (191 cm) tall and often weighed close to 275 pounds (125 kg). He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf thus: "I got that from my grandfather", who would often tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved then the "howling wolves would get him". Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.
According to the documentary film The Howlin' Wolf Story, Burnett's parents broke up when he was young. His very religious mother, Gertrude, threw him out of the house while he was a child for refusing to work around the farm; he then moved in with his uncle, Will Young, who treated him badly. When he was 13, he ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles (137 km) 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 see his mother in his home town and was driven to tears when she rebuffed him: she refused to take money offered by him, saying it was from his playing of the "Devil's music".
In 1930, Burnett met Charley Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Mississippi Delta at the time. He would listen to Patton play nightly from outside a nearby juke joint. There he remembered Patton playing "Pony Blues", "High Water Everywhere", "A Spoonful Blues", and "Banty Rooster Blues". The two became acquainted and soon Patton was teaching him guitar. Burnett recalled that: "The first piece I ever played in my life was ... a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare" (Patton's "Pony Blues"). He also learned about showmanship from Patton: "When he played his guitar, he would turn it over backwards and forwards, and throw it around over his shoulders, between his legs, throw it up in the sky". Burnett could perform the guitar tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life. He played with Patton often in small Delta communities.
Burnett was influenced by other popular blues performers of the time including the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake, and Tommy Johnson. Two of the earliest songs he mastered were Jefferson's "Match Box Blues" and Leroy Carr's "How Long, How Long Blues". Country singer Jimmie Rodgers was also an influence. He tried to emulate Rodgers' "blue yodel", but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. "I couldn't do no yodelin'", Barry Gifford quoted him as saying in Rolling Stone, "so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine". His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), who had taught him how to play when Burnett moved to Parkin, Arkansas, in 1933.
During the 1930s, Burnett performed in the South as a solo performer and with a number of blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Brown, Son House and Willie Johnson. On April 9, 1941, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several army bases around the country. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, Burnett was discharged on November 3, 1943. He returned to his family, who had recently moved near to West Memphis, Arkansas, and helped with the farming while also performing as he had done in the 1930s with Floyd Jones and others. In 1948 he formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction" and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, alternating between performing and pitching equipment on his father's farm. Later, Sam Phillips heard him and in 1951 signed him for Memphis Recording Service.
In 1950, Howlin' Wolf cut several tracks at Sun Studio in Memphis. He quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at RPM Records and Leonard Chess's Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' At Midnight" b/w "How Many More Years" on August 15, 1951. Burnett also recorded sides for RPM, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and he settled in Chicago, Illinois c. 1953. Arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year he enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. The line-up of the Howlin' Wolf band would change regularly over the years, employing many different guitarists both on recordings and in live performance including Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, L.D. McGhee, Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers, his brother Little Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie "Abu Talib" Robinson and Buddy Guy among others. Burnett was able to attract some of the best musicians available due to his policy, somewhat uniquely among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, withholding unemployment insurance and even Social Security. With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late '50s, Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Howlin' Wolf's career, and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin' Wolf sound.
In the 1950s Howlin' Wolf had four songs that qualified as "hits" on the Billboard national R&B charts: "How Many More Years", his first and biggest hit, made it to #4 in 1951; its flip side, "Moanin' at Midnight", made it to #10 the same year; "Smokestack Lightning" charted for three weeks in 1956, peaking at #8; and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" appeared on the charts for one week in 1956, in the #8 position. In 1959, his first album, Moanin' in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.
His 1962 LP Howlin' Wolf, which featured contributions from Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers and Sam Lay among others, is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as "The Rocking Chair album" because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained "Wang Dang Doodle", "Goin' Down Slow", "Spoonful", and "Little Red Rooster" (titled "The Red Rooster" on this album), songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1964 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered "Little Red Rooster" as a 1964 UK No 1 single. He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who is credited with such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Little Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Evil", "Wang Dang Doodle" (later recorded by Koko Taylor), and others.
In May 1970, Howlin' Wolf traveled to London along with Sumlin, the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp and Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
Unlike many other blues musicians who had left an impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Chester Burnett was always financially successful. Having already achieved a measure of success in Memphis, 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 4,000 dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man 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 succumbed. Though functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a General Educational Development (GED), and later to study accounting and other business courses aimed to help his business career.
Burnett met his future wife, Lillie, when she attended one of his performances in a Chicago club. She and her family were urban and educated, and not involved in what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Burnett 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. Together they raised Bettye and Barbara, Lillie's two daughters from an earlier relationship.
After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Burnett 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.
Burnett's health declined in the late 1960s through 1970s. He suffered several heart attacks and in 1970 his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident. He died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois on January 10, 1976 from complications of kidney disease and was buried in Oakridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois, in a plot in Section 18, on the east side of the road. His gravestone has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.
The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, has been established by Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend Burnett's legacy. The foundation mission and goals include the preservation of the blues music genre, scholarships for students to participate in music programs, and support for blues musicians and blues programs.
The Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival is held each year in West Point, Mississippi, as is Wolf's Juke Joint Jam.
A popular music venue in New Orleans, Louisiana, was named The Howlin' Wolf when it opened in 1988.
Burnett was portrayed by Eamonn Walker in the 2008 motion picture Cadillac Records.
A recording of Howlin' Wolf was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance".
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
On September 17, 1994, the US Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
|Also known as:||Howlin' Wolf|
|Associated acts:||Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon|
|Birth name:||Chester Arthur Burnett|
|Born:||(1910-06-10)June 10, 1910|
White Station, Mississippi
|Died:||January 10, 1976(1976-01-10) (aged 65)|
|Instruments:||Vocals, guitar, harmonica|