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In the history of the blues, there has never been anyone quite like the Howlin' Wolf. Six foot three and close to 300 pounds in his salad days, the Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may have possessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.
He was born in West Point, MS, and named after the 21st President of the United States (Chester Arthur). His father was a farmer and Wolf took to it as well until his 18th birthday, when a chance meeting with Delta blues legend Charley Patton changed his life forever. Though he never came close to learning the subtleties of Patton's complex guitar technique, two of the major components of Wolf's style (Patton's inimitable growl of a voice and his propensity for entertaining) were learned first hand from the Delta blues master. The main source of Wolf's hard-driving, rhythmic style on harmonica came when Aleck "Rice" Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson) married his half-sister Mary and taught him the rudiments of the instrument. He first started playing in the early '30s as a strict Patton imitator, while others recall him at decade's end rocking the juke joints with a neck-rack harmonica and one of the first electric guitars anyone had ever seen. After a four-year stretch in the Army, he settled down as a farmer and weekend player in West Memphis, AR, and it was here that Wolf's career in music began in earnest.
By 1948, he had established himself within the community as a radio personality. As a means of advertising his own local appearances, Wolf had a 15-minute radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, interspersing his down-home blues with farm reports and like-minded advertising that he sold himself. But a change in Wolf's sound that would alter everything that came after was soon in coming because when listeners tuned in for Wolf's show, the sound was up-to-the-minute electric. Wolf had put his first band together, featuring the explosive guitar work of Willie Johnson, whose aggressive style not only perfectly suited Wolf's sound but aurally extended and amplified the violence and nastiness of it as well. In any discussion of Wolf's early success both live, over the airwaves, and on record, the importance of Willie Johnson cannot be overestimated.
Wolf finally started recording in 1951, when he caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who first heard him on his morning radio show. The music Wolf made in the Memphis Recording Service studio was full of passion and zest and Phillips simultaneously leased the results to the Bihari Brothers in Los Angeles and Leonard Chess in Chicago. Suddenly, Howlin' Wolf had two hits at the same time on the R&B charts with two record companies claiming to have him exclusively under contract. Chess finally won him over and as Wolf would proudly relate years later, "I had a 4,000 dollar car and 3,900 dollars in my pocket. I'm the onliest one drove out of the South like a gentleman." It was the winter of 1953 and Chicago would be his new home.
When Wolf entered the Chess studios the next year, the violent aggression of the Memphis sides was being replaced with a Chicago backbeat and, with very little fanfare, a new member in the band. Hubert Sumlin proved himself to be the Wolf's longest-running musical associate. He first appears as a rhythm guitarist on a 1954 session, and within a few years' time his style had fully matured to take over the role of lead guitarist in the band by early 1958. In what can only be described as an "angular attack," Sumlin played almost no chords behind Wolf, sometimes soloing right through his vocals, featuring wild skitterings up and down the fingerboard and biting single notes. If Willie Johnson was Wolf's second voice in his early recording career, then Hubert Sumlin would pick up the gauntlet and run with it right to the end of the howler's life.
By 1956, Wolf was in the R&B charts again, racking up hits with "Evil" and "Smokestack Lightnin'." He remained a top attraction both on the Chicago circuit and on the road. His records, while seldom showing up on the national charts, were still selling in decent numbers down South. But by 1960, Wolf was teamed up with Chess staff writer Willie Dixon, and for the next five years he would record almost nothing but songs written by Dixon. The magic combination of Wolf's voice, Sumlin's guitar, and Dixon's tunes sold a lot of records and brought the 50-year-old bluesman roaring into the next decade with a considerable flourish. The mid-'60s saw him touring Europe regularly with "Smokestack Lightnin'" becoming a hit in England some eight years after its American release. Certainly any list of Wolf's greatest sides would have to include "I Ain't Superstitious," "The Red Rooster," "Shake for Me," "Back Door Man," "Spoonful," and "Wang Dang Doodle," Dixon compositions all. While almost all of them would eventually become Chicago blues standards, their greatest cache occurred when rock bands the world over started mining the Chess catalog for all it was worth. One of these bands was the Rolling Stones, whose cover of "The Red Rooster" became a number-one record in England. At the height of the British Invasion, the Stones came to America in 1965 for an appearance on ABC-TV's rock music show, Shindig. Their main stipulation for appearing on the program was that Howlin' Wolf would be their special guest. With the Stones sitting worshipfully at his feet, the Wolf performed a storming version of "How Many More Years," being seen on his network-TV debut by an audience of a few million. Wolf never forgot the respect the Stones paid him, and he spoke of them highly right up to his final days.
Dixon and Wolf parted company by 1964 and Wolf was back in the studio doing his own songs. One of the classics to emerge from this period was "Killing Floor," featuring a modern backbeat and a incredibly catchy guitar riff from Sumlin. Catchy enough for Led Zeppelin to appropriate it for one of their early albums, cheerfully crediting it to themselves in much the same manner as they had done with numerous other blues standards. By the end of the decade, Wolf's material was being recorded by artists including the Doors, the Electric Flag, the Blues Project, Cream, and Jeff Beck. The result of all these covers brought Wolf the belated acclaim of a young, white audience. Chess' response to this was to bring him into the studio for a "psychedelic" album, truly the most dreadful of his career. His last big payday came when Chess sent him over to England in 1970 to capitalize on the then-current trend of London Session albums, recording with Eric Clapton on lead guitar and other British superstars. Wolf's health was not the best, but the session was miles above the earlier, ill-advised attempt to update Wolf's sound for a younger audience.
As the '70s moved on, the end of the trail started coming closer. By now Wolf was a very sick man; he had survived numerous heart attacks and was suffering kidney damage from an automobile accident that sent him flying through the car's windshield. His bandleader Eddie Shaw firmly rationed Wolf to a meager half-dozen songs per set. Occasionally some of the old fire would come blazing forth from some untapped wellspring, and his final live and studio recordings show that he could still tear the house apart when the spirit moved him. He entered the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1976 to be operated on, but never survived it, finally passing away on January 10th of that year.
But his passing did not go unrecognized. A life-size statue of him was erected shortly after in a Chicago park. Eddie Shaw kept his memory and music alive by keeping his band, the Wolf Gang, together for several years afterward. A child-education center in Chicago was named in his honor and in 1980 he was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A couple of years later, his face was on a United States postage stamp. Howlin' Wolf is now a permanent part of American history.
Wikipedia:"Chester Burnett" redirects here. For American football player, see Chester Burnett (American football).
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".Koda, Cub. "Howlin' Wolf — Artist Biography". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved April 17, 2014. The Howlin' Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock & Roll. "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Howlin' Wolf". Rolling Stone (946). 2004. Retrieved April 17, 2014.
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".Oliver 1969, p. 150.
ContentsMusical career1.1 1930s and 1940s1.2 1950s1.3 1960s and 1970s
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 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.Segrest 2004, p. 19. Segrest 2004, p. 20. Humphrey 2007. Hoffman 2012. Whitburn 1988, pp. 197–198.
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.
ContentsSelective awards and recognitions1.1 Grammy Hall of Fame1.2 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame1.3 The Blues Foundation Awards1.4 Honors and Inductions1.5 Howlin' Wolf Foundation
Selective awards and recognitions
Grammy Hall of Fame
A recording of Howlin' Wolf was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance".
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf in the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
The Blues Foundation Awards
Honors and Inductions
On September 17, 1994, the US Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
Howlin' Wolf Foundation
The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a non-profit corporation organized under American tax code section 501(c)(3), has been established by Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend Howlin' Wolf's legacy. The foundation mission and goals include the preservation of the blues music genre, scholarships for students to participate in music programs, and support for blues musicians and blues programs."Grammy Hall of Fame Awards". The Recording Academy. 1999. Retrieved April 17, 2014. "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 1995. Retrieved April 17, 2014. "Awards Search". The Blues Foundation. Retrieved April 17, 2014. "Mission & Goal". Howlin' Wolf Foundation. The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, Inc. Retrieved April 17, 2014.