Born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, in West Point, MS; died of complications from kidney disease January 10, 1976, in Chicago, IL; son of Dock and Gertrude Burnett (plantation workers); married first wife c. l930s; married wife, Lillie, c. 1950s; children: (second marriage) Barbara, Betty Jean. Religion: Southern Baptist. Blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. Toured with fellow bluesmen, including Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson c. 1930s. Worked as singer, producer, and advertising salesman at KWEM Radio in West Memphis, TN. Released first album in 1951 on Chess Records; toured the U.S. and Europe, with Chicago as his primary venue, 1952-c. 1976. Appeared in short film Wolf, 1971. Military service: U.S. Army, stationed in Seattle, WA.
Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett in West Point, Mississippi, was awarded an honorary doctor of arts degree from Chicago's Columbia College in June of 1972; it read: "Premiere man of American Music, you have sung and made songs of hard-time blues and mighty joys that cry to make the world fair." Howlin' Wolf--along with Muddy Waters--revolutionized urban blues in Chicago after World War II.
The raw, rasping, guttural power of Wolf's fierce voice, combined with his imposing physical presence and wild stage abandon, made him unforgettable. His influence stretched far beyond the realm of the blues; British rock performers Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds merged Wolf's blues with white rock and roll in songs like "Smokestack Lightning," "Ain't Superstitious," "Back Door Man" and "Little Red Rooster." Wolf was an experimental bluesman who formulated a wide range of moods and possibilities for his songs. He was also notably consistent: Throughout his career he retained the style, vigor, and flavor of the Mississippi Delta blues of his early years.
Howlin' Wolf was born on June 10, 1910. He grew up one of six children on the Young and Myers cotton plantation, where both of his parents worked. The Delta farmlands were rife with the blues, which were part of most social gatherings. When Wolf was a child his grandfather would tell him stories of wolves in Mississippi. Once, something frightened the young Chester and he ran howling upstairs, which prompted his family to dub him the Howlin' Wolf. Wolf adopted this name for himself early on, and--at 6' 3" and 300 pounds--lived up to it as an adult.
Wolf's father presented him with his first guitar when the bluesman was 18. With the exception of the World War II years, during which he served in the Army--stationed in Seattle, Washington--Wolf spent most of his adult life, until the age of 38, farming in Arkansas and Mississippi. It wasn't until his father's death in 1949 that he devoted himself entirely to the blues.
Throughout his young life Wolf had his pick of blues greats for mentors: Charlie Patton lived on a nearby plantation and taught Wolf much about showmanship. Sonny Boy Williamson married Wolf's stepsister Mary in the early thirties and showed Wolf the ins and outs of the harmonica during the courtship. Wolf himself was married briefly to Willie Brown's sister. Wolf's childhood idol was singer Jimmie Rodgers, who was noted for his "blues-yodel." Wolf tried to emulate the 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." Wolf met legendary Delta blues singer Robert Johnson in Robinsonville, Mississippi, and they played together briefly. Shortly thereafter Johnson was poisoned--by a jealous girlfriend or husband. "This is all part of the blues," Wolf reportedly remarked on hearing the news of his colleague's demise.
In 1948 Wolf formed his first band in Memphis, Tennessee. "That's where I got my break," he recounted in the New York Times. "Back in the country the people weren't able to pay you too much. Sometimes you'd work all night for a fish sandwich, glad to get it, too." At first Wolf played gigs by himself, often earning only $50 working from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. He decided that it would be better to have some other musicians help take the load off of him. His first band featured Willie Steele on drums, Willie Johnson and M. T. Murphy on guitars, Junior Parker on harmonica, and Destruction on piano. Wolf would alternate between harmonica and guitar--he had taken up electric when he was in the Army--but usually concentrated on singing.
Wolf sold advertising spots at this time for the thirty-minute planter's broadcast he had secured for himself on station KWEM in West Memphis. The radio show was what eventually earned him a recording contract, as he had gone as far as he could by word-of-mouth reputation. Wolf grabbed the attention of Ike Turner, then a young Artists & Repertoire man for West Coast-based RPM Records. Turner produced the first Howlin' Wolf sides for that label, which in turn were used to secure a contract with Sam Phillips's Sun Records. Wolf's first hits were "How Many More Years" and "Moanin' at Midnight." The masters cut for Sun were then sold to Chicago's Chess Records; Wolf went to Chicago in 1952, leaving his band behind in Memphis. He opened a small club there on 13th and Ashland to showcase local blues talent, his own included.
Wolf's animated stage presence was a departure for bluesmen at that time. He writhed, moaned, climbed up draperies, pounded on posts, rolled on the floor, and was gruff and blustery in order to hammer his songs home. His vocals were menacing and sounded unnatural at times, as though a primal force propelled them from his throat. He was tremendous in presence and voice and quickly became familiar on the Chicago blues scene. He did not merely sing words: He infused them with life and feeling, transcending the limitations of blues music through the sheer force of his voice and personality.
A legendary rivalry between Howlin' Wolf and fellow Chicago blues giant Muddy Waters soon arose; much of it, however, has been blown out of proportion. Waters got Wolf his first job in Chicago. "I got in touch with him because I didn't know nobody here," Wolf reported to Peter Guralnick, as related in Feel Like Going Home. "He carried me around to the clubs and helped me get started." They shared a grudging admiration for each other. Waters led better bands, but it was Wolf who left a unique mark on everything he touched. Some obvious evidence of the rivalry does exist: Wolf did stall and stretch out his set at Michigan's Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 in an attempt to prevent Waters from getting onstage. And when Waters's Electric Mud album came out in 1968, Wolf followed with his own "psychedelic" record--The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions --which never sat too well with Waters and was not perceived as great material. In fact Wolf himself viewed the release as disastrous, dismissed it as "birdshit," and denied having had anything to do with it. The record company maintained that it was initiated at Wolf's insistence after the success of Waters's Electric Mud. Despite the fracas it generated, Wolf's ill-fated excursion into psychedelics was brief. From then on he continued to evoke his traditional style: the rough vocal tone, the lyrical falsetto, and a slapdash feel. He would act out the drama of "Smokestack Lightning" by sighting the train, hopping on board, and then sadly "going down slow."
Wolf was a fiercely domestic man, a provider, a volunteer within the Chicago community, and an investor in property in his native Delta country. He was a jealous husband, but his diminutive wife Lillie didn't mind one bit: She knew what Wolf was like and it suited her just fine. They had two daughters, Barbara and Betty Jean, and lived simply but comfortably in a house on Chicago's south side. Wolf was a peaceful, pensive, near-sighted man with a pipe when at home; Lillie saw little of the onstage Wolf. He had a true lust for life and his pragmatic, insightful views frequently were at odds with those trying to make a living off his talent. As a result, Wolf earned a reputation for an unpredictable and sometimes difficult temperament. He was suspicious of everyone--particularly managers--and usually for good reason. Not surprisingly, he was known to howl with rage if a situation warranted it. Wolf's forceful, stubborn personality and solid values garnered quite a lot of respect from the people at Chess Records and from other musicians as well.
Wolf never read music. He would sit on a metal chair in the studio, wearing big horn-rimmed glasses, shirt open, cradling a beat-up guitar, playing according to what sounded right to him. According to Guralnick, Wolf would say to his longtime backup guitarist Humbert Sumlin and the studio man playing lead, "I want you playing against each other, the two parts playing against each other." This usually addled the studio man--almost always a reading musician. Typically Wolf had to demonstrate what he wanted and run through it until his back-up players understood through sheer instinct.
After nearly a quarter century of remarkable performances throughout the U.S. and abroad--not to mention his famed Chicago act--Howling Wolf died peacefully, of complications arising from kidney disease, on January 10, 1976, in a Chicago hospital; he was 65. He had sang the blues almost until the time of his death, despite his illness; his last public appearance was with renown blues guitarist B. B. King at the Chicago Amphitheater in November of 1975. While undergoing kidney treatment in the hospital he frequently had fans smuggle forbidden foods to him. He once escaped to enjoy a full meal of meat and potatoes; no one could find him. Hours later, sated, he arrived back at the hospital licking his lips. Wolf can be heard howling his own fitting epitaph on "Smokestack Lightning"--one of the most beautiful blues songs ever written: "Fare you well, never see me here no more, oh, don't you hear me."
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Howlin' Wolf's Career
Howlin' Wolf's Awards
Honorary doctor of arts degree from Columbia College, Chicago, 1972; Montreux Festival award for album Back Door Wolf, 1975.
- Selective Works
- Big City Blues, United, 1966.
- The Real Folk Blues (recorded c. 1956-65), Chess, 1966.
- (With Hubert Sumlin, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, and others) More Real Folk Blues (recorded c. 1953-57), Chess, 1967.
- The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (featuring Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and The Rolling Stones), Chess, 1971.
- Message to the Young, Chess, 1971.
- The Back Door Wolf, Chess, 1973.
- Change My Way, Chess, 1977.
- Moanin' in the Moonlight (recorded 1951-59), Chess, reissue, 1987.
- Cadillac Daddy: Memphis Recordings, 1952, Rounder, 1989.
- Chicago: 26 Golden Years, Chess.
- His Greatest Sides, Vol. 1, Chess.
- Howlin' Wolf: Moanin' in the Moonlight, Chess.
- Live and Cookin' at Alice's Restaurant, Chess.
- Evil, Chess.
- Howlin' Wolf: Chess Blues Masters, Chess.
- The Legendary Sun Performers: Howlin' Wolf (British import), Charly.
- I'm the Wolf, Vogue.
- This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album (British import), Cadet C.
- From Early til Late, Blue Night.
- Going Back Home (British import), Syndicate Chapter.
- Heart Like Railroad Steel: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, Vol. 1, Blues Ball.
- Can't Put Me Out: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, Vol. 2, Blues Ball.
- Ridin' in the Moonlight, Ace.
- (With Funny Papa Smith) Howlin' Wolf & Funny Papa Smith, Yazoo.
- The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Lyrics from Leadbelly to Muddy Waters, compiled by Eric Sackheim, Schirmer, 1969.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Guralnick, Peter, Feel Like Going Home, Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971.
- The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone, 1979.
- Oliver, Paul, Conversation with the Blues, Horizon Press, 1965.
- Creem, November 1972.
- New York Times, January 12, 1976.
- Rolling Stone, August 24, 1968; February 12, 1976.