Howlin’ Wolf

Jun 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
Share Button

Howlin’ Wolf1910-1976  Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, projected the elemental power of the blues through his six-foot, three-inch, 275-pound frame, raw feral voice, electric guitar, and harmonica to stunning effect. He was a major contributor to the evolution of the electric Chicago blues, blues/rock, and rock and roll.

Farming to Singing

Wolf was born in 1910 in the Mississippi hill country, one of six children. He showed an early interest in music and sang in the Baptist Church choir. His father was a farmer who separated from his mother and moved to a plantation in the Delta region. After a difficult period under the care of a stern uncle, Wolf rejoined his father at age 13. There, he heard many of the Delta blues greats at local parties and juke joints. When his father gave him a guitar at age 18, he received lessons from the legendary Charlie Patton.

In 1933, the family moved to Parkin, Arkansas, where harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson dated Wolf’s half-sister and taught him the rudiments of that instrument. Wolf began performing in the early 1930s as an imitator of Patton’s traditional style, but by the end of the decade, he was playing an aggressive electric guitar and a neck-rack harmonica with an edge all his own. Playing bars, on the street, and all around the Delta, Wolf crossed paths with nearly every significant regional musician, and played with the likes of Robert Johnson. He continued farming with his father during the week whenever possible, and the link between the land and the blues remained in his music.

Wolf was drafted into the Army in 1941, serving in the Signal Corps in the Pacific northwest. On his discharge in 1945, he returned to Parkin, and then farmed on his own for two years in Penton, Mississippi. In 1948, he commited himself to music and moved to West Memphis, Arkansas. There, he formed his own band, toured Arkansas and Mississippi, and developed both a regional reputation and a unique performing style: Wolf would jump, wriggle, whoop, and hoot his way through the essence of a song, entrancing and frightening audiences. The band, featuring Willie Johnson on guitar, complemented Wolf’s powerful, trend-setting delivery. In 1948, Wolf was offered his own weekly radio show at age 38. Here, he first began using the Howlin’ Wolf name, which he credited to his grandfather, and which was clearly appropriate for his shouts and howls. Through the show, he came to the attention of Sam Phillips, a producer responsible for discovering Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1951, Phillips brought Wolf into his Memphis studio to record “How Many More Years” and “Moanin’ at Midnight.” The 78 rpm record went on to sell 60,000 copies, a significant success, through two different labels. After ongoing conflict with the record label, Wolf finally settled in with Chicago’s Chess Records, and moved to Chicago permanently in 1953.

Chicago Blues, International Star

A new set of collaborators joined Wolf in the Chess studios beginning in 1954, and helped to create a sound that would redefine the blues. In particular, guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who began on rhythm guitar and then became lead guitar for Wolf by 1958, lent an angular solo line to Wolf’s vocal delivery, and would stay with him for the remainder of his career. The near-violent force of Wolf’s earlier Memphis recordings was now moderated by a Chicago-style backbeat, anticipating future musical developments.  Wolf’s “Evil” and “Smokestack Lightnin’ ” were both solid R&B chart hits in 1956, selling especially well in the south.

Then in 1960, Wolf began a long-term collaboration with Chess’ lead composer, Willie Dixon. Despite some competition with fellow Chess artist Muddy Waters for Dixon’s material, this proved to be a magic combination. Dixon’s songs on the 1962 album Howlin’ Wolf included “Shake for Me,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “The Red Rooster,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Back Door Man,” and “Spoonful.” Many became blues standards. More importantly, international bands began paying close attention to American blues, especially the Chess Records catalog. Wolf toured overseas with the American Blues Festival in the early 1960s, after which the Rolling Stones covered Wolf’s “Red Rooster” for a number one hit in England. When they appeared on ABC TV’s “Shindig” music show in 1965, they insisted that Wolf join them. Wolf sang “How Many More Years” to a television audience of millions.

By then, Wolf was once again recording his own material such as “Killing Floor.” And in 1964, he married his long-time sweetheart Lillie Handley. During this same period, his influence on other musicians, and in particular rock bands, became more pronounced. In the course of the 1960s, artists recording Wolf’s compositions included Cream, the Doors, the Blues Project, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, and Electric Flag, and with it came exposure to an appreciative young white audience. Chess had him record the rock-inflected The Howlin’ Wolf Album in 1969; and a 1970 trip to England culminated in a superstar album with Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and members of the Rolling Stones, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.

By the early 1970s, Wolf’s health had deteriorated, the result of several heart attacks and kidney damage. His live performances were curtailed, although his final recordings, including 1973’s “The Back Door Wolf,” still showed the vigor of a man half his age. His final performance was in 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheater, with an all-star lineup of bluesmen including B.B. King. After a five-minute standing ovation from the ecstatic audience, he had to be treated by paramedics. Two months later, in 1976, he entered the Chicago Veterans Administration Hospital for surgery, but his heart failed during the procedure.

In acknowledgement of his achievements, Wolf was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. His style, compositions, and recordings continue to inspire countless musicians, and his distinctive voice is heard in every beat of urban black music and rock and roll.


Leave a Comment