Born 10th June 1910 Died 10th January 1976
Chester Arthur Burnett was born to Leon “Dock” Burnett and Gertrude Jones on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, a tiny railroad stop between Aberdeen and West Point in the Mississippi hill country, many miles away from the Delta. Fascinated by music as a boy, he would often beat on pans with a stick and imitate the whistle of the railroad trains that ran nearby. He also sang in the choir at the White Station Baptist church, where Will Young, his stern, unforgiving great-uncle preached. When his parents separated, his father moved to the Delta, and his mother left Chester with his uncle Will, who treated him harshly.
Wolf’s relationship with his mother was also troubled. Gertrude spent much of her adult life as a street singer, eking out a living by selling hand-written gospel songs for pennies to passersby. She disowned her son Chester, claiming he played “the Devil’s music.” Wolf’s wariness can be traced to his bleak childhood.
When he was 13, Chester ran away to the Delta to rejoin his father, half-sister, and step-siblings, who lived on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville. There, Chester became fascinated by local blues musicians, especially the Delta’s first great blues star, Charley Patton who lived on the nearby Dockery Plantation. When his father bought him his first guitar in January 1928, he convinced Patton to give him guitar lessons. He later took impromptu harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Millar), who was romancing his step-sister, Mary. He learned to sing by listening to records by his idols Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, and Blind Blake. During the 30s when he wasn’t working on his father’s farm, he travelled the Delta with other musicians such as Sonny Boy, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton. Son House, and Willie Brown.
From the start, Chester’s voice was startling—huge and raw like Charlie Patton’s, and even more powerful. He learned to play guitar and blues harp simultaneously, using a rack-mounted harp. His stage presence was absolutely feral, exaggerated by his physical size—he stood 6' 3" tall, weighed 275 lbs late in life, and wore size 16 shoes. John Shines, who also traveled with Robert Johnson, said, “I was afraid of the Wolf, like you would be of some wild animal....It was the SOUND he was giving off!”
In 1941 wolf was inducted into the army, unable to adjust to army life he was discharged in 1943, without ever having served overseas. He returned to the farm, returning to performing as he had done in the 30’s with Floyd Jones and others. In 1948 wolf moved to west Memphis, Arkansas and formed his own band, at the same time he joined KWEM radio station as a disc jockey, often performing his own material. Through his radio performances he caught the attention of Sam Phillips in 1951, who was recording material in Memphis and leasing it to record labels. ‘Moanin In The Moanlight’ and ‘How Many More Years’ were leased to Chess, released in 1952 they made it to the R&B Billboard top 10.
Chess signed up Wolf and he moved to Chicago, which he called home for the rest of his life. While he was recording in Memphis, generally under the command of Ike Turner, Wolf was fortunate to have guitarist Willie Johnson working with him, this good fortune remained when he moved to Chicago, Johnson refusing to move, when he first worked with Jody Williams and then with the unique Hubert Sumlin. His raw Delta sound of earlier
recordins guaranteed him of an audience in Chicago and he very quickly established a huge reputation around the club circuit. He produced classic records at this time such as ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Killing Floor’ which only served to further enhance his reputation, ensuring an he would endure the leaner times of rock ‘n’ roll.
Into the 60’s and it was boom time again for the blues and Wolf and Hubert Sumlin continued to records scintillating blues records that anticipated the blues rock genre. In 1964 Wolf toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and returned on many occasions over the next decade. His music was a significant influence on emerging young artists and groups and was covered by a diverse range of performers, The Doors, Cream, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann all recorded some of Howlin Wolf’s best known songs.
In 1970 he recorded ‘The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions’ with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts it was his top selling album. He continued to tour, but his health was failing, he had suffered several heart attacks and his kidneys were failing. his last performance was in 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheatre, on a bill which included B.B. King, Albert King, Luther Allison and a host of well regarded blues players. He gave what is regarded as a heroic performance recreating many of his old songs and performing some of his famous stage antics, such as crawling across the stage during ‘Crawling King Snake’. The crowd were ecstatic giving him a five minute ovation. Off stage paramedics were called to revive him, testament to his commitment to the music and the audience. Two months later he died when his heart gave out after an operation.
Howlin’ Wolf was inducted to the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.