Wolf Biography - Blues Legend Bio
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
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,
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
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.