Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howlin' Wolf, was an influential American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player. With a booming voice and looming physical presence, he is one of the best-known Chicago blues artists. Musician and critic Cub Koda noted, "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"; producer Sam Phillips added "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'". Several of his songs, such as "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful" have become blues and blues rock standards. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 51 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: "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".
1930s and 1940s
In 1930, Burnett met Charlie 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', so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine". His harmonica playing was modeled after that of 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. Radio station KWEM in West Memphis began broadcasting his live performances and he occasionally sat in with Williamson on KFFA in Helena.
In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded several songs by Howlin' Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service. He quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. His first record singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: "How Many More Years" with "Moaning at Midnight" by Chess Records and "Riding in the Moonlight" backed with "Moaning at Midnight" by RPM Records. Later, Leonard Chess was able to secure his contract and Howlin' Wolf relocated to Chicago in 1952. There he assembled a new band and recruited 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 understated solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. The line-up of the Howlin' Wolf band changed 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 Robinson, and Buddy Guy among others. Burnett was able to attract some of the best musicians available due to his policy, somewhat unique among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, withholding unemployment insurance and even Social Security contributions. With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late 1950s, 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, five of Howlin' Wolf's songs appeared in the Billboard national R&B charts: "Moanin' at Midnight", "How Many More Years", "Who Will Be Next", "Smokestack Lightning", and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)". In 1959, his first album, Moanin' in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.
1960s and 1970s
In the early 1960s, Howlin' Wolf recorded several songs that became his most famous, although they never appeared in the record charts. These include "Wang Dang Doodle", "Back Door Man", "Spoonful", "The Red Rooster" (later known as "Little Red Rooster"), "I Ain't Superstitious", "Goin' Down Slow", and "Killing Floor". Many of these songs were written by bassist and Chess arranger Willie Dixon; later, several found their way into the repertoires of British and American rock groups, who further popularized them. In 1962, his second compilation album, titled Howlin' Wolf (often called "The Rocking Chair album"), was released.
Howlin' Wolf toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the popular music variety television program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose recording of "Little Red Rooster" reached number one in the UK in 1964. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Howlin' Wolf recorded albums with others, including The Super Super Blues Band with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, The Howlin' Wolf Album with session musicians, and Howlin' Wolf London Sessions, accompanied by British rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. His last album for Chess was 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) diploma, 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, outside of Chicago, 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.