January 10, 1976 – Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett 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”. 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. (Note-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”.)
Burnett received a guitar from his father when he was 18 and started to actively study and perform the blues. Burnett learned his craft from renowned bluesmen like Charley Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson, the latter being a family in-law, and performed in clubs during the 1930s while working as a farmer. He was stationed with the Army in Seattle, Washington during World War II, and then returned home, devoting himself fully to his music by the end of the decade.
After the War
Wolf had generally accompanied himself at performances with a guitar and harmonica, and not until 1948 did he finally opt to form a band, the House Rockers, in in Memphis, Tennessee. He had a radio spot, which enabled him to promote his appearances, and by the start of the 1950s, he was scouted by Ike Turner—then an A&R person for RPM Records—who would also play with Wolf in his band. Wolf eventually recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. When Wolf signed with Chess Records, Philips said that Wolf was the most profound artist he ever worked with, and he wanted to record Wolf until either of them died. He never got that chance because Wolf left Sun Records to record for Chess Records in Chicago in 1954. Losing Wolf was the biggest disappointment of his career, Phillips said–far worse than losing Elvis to a bigger label. That tells you all you need to know about what he thought of Wolf’s talent.
Wolf relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he became highly known for his rousing, electric guitar-based style. In live performances, he yelped like an animal, crawled across stages and up curtains, and popped bug-eyed faces that gave the appearance of barely contained madness.
Wolf was a large, statuesque man who had a forceful, animated presence on stage and who let loose with a rich, textured vocal style. His hits include “How Many More Years,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” By the start of the 1960s, Wolf was collaborating often with songwriter/singer/producer Willie Dixon, who penned most of Wolf’s studio repertoire for the next few years, including classics like “Spoonful,” “The Red Rooster” and “Shake for Me.”
In contrast to his stage persona however, it was said that Wolf was a quieter person who volunteered in the Chicago community and helped look out for his band members’ finances. There was an ongoing rivalry between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf for Blues Supremacy in the Chicago area, intensified when Waters stole guitarist Hubert Sumlin from Wolf. Several musicians who played with both Muddy and Wolf say Wolf was a more professional band leader. Wolf paid his people on time and withheld unemployment insurance and even Social Security, which some of his band members are still drawing today. Wolf also stood up for his band and wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Jimmy Rogers, who played for years in Muddy’s band, said: “Wolf was better at managing a bunch of people than Muddy or anybody else. Muddy would go along with the Chess company, but Wolf would speak up for himself.”
His later years
Wolf continued to perform with a manic intensity that would’ve exhausted a man half his age, often in small clubs that other well-known bluesmen had already abandoned. Wolf said simply, “I sing for the people.”
In 1964, Wolf also married his long-time sweetheart, Lillie Handley, whom he had met in 1957 at Silvio’s nightclub in Chicago. Wolf called Lillie “a flower from the first day I met her,” and he doted on her two daughters, Bettye Jean and Barbra. Despite his wild antics onstage, Wolf was a responsible, middle-class family man offstage—honest, hardworking, and upstanding to a fault. He hunted and fished, owned farmland in Arkansas, volunteered with the local fire department, and was a proud member of the local chapter of the Masons.
Wolf’s collaborator on many of his greatest songs was guitar wizard Hubert Sumlin, who played electric guitar with his bare fingers instead of using a pick. Hubert’s eccentric, slashing style made him a favorite of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, and many other guitarists from the 1960s onward.
During the 1960s, Wolf and Hubert continued to record sizzling blues that anticipated blues-rock—classic songs such as “Commit a Crime,” “Hidden Charms,” and “Love Me, Darlin’” In 1964, he toured Europe, including the U.K. and even Eastern Europe, with the American Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the American television show “Shindig” with the Rolling Stones. In 1970 he recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in England with Eric Clapton, members of the Rolling Stones, and other British rock stars. It was his best-selling album, reaching #79 on the pop charts.
Not bad for a 60-year-old man—a very ill one. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Wolf suffered several heart attacks, and his kidneys began to fail him. For the rest of his life, he received dialysis treatments every three days, administered by Lillie. Despite his failing health, Howlin’ Wolf stoically continued to record and perform. In 1972 he recorded a live album at a Chicago club, “Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited.” In 1973, he cut his last studio album, “Back Door Wolf” which included the incendiary “Coon on the Moon,” the autobiographical “Moving,” and “Can’t Stay Here,” which harked back to Charley Patton.
Wolf’s last performance was in November 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheater. On a bill with B.B. King, Albert King, O. V. Wright, Luther Allison, and many other great bluesmen, Wolf gave a heroic performance, rising almost literally from his deathbed to recreate many of his old songs and performing some of his old antics such as crawling across the stage during the song “Crawling King Snake.” The crowd went wild and gave him a five-minute standing ovation. When he got offstage, a team of paramedics where called in to revive him.
Two months later on January 10, 1976 at age 65 he died in Chicago during an operation for a brain tumor. He was buried in Hines, IL.
Wolf was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf.