Born Chester Arthur Burnett, 10 June 1910, White Station, Mississippi
Blues singer / guitarist / harmonica player
A pioneer in electrifying the blues, Howlin' Wolf is one of the greatest blues artists ever, a musical giant in every way. He stood six foot six, weighed almost 300 pounds, wore size sixteen shoes, and sang his songs with a menacing and deep intensity. More than 60 years after his first hits, his sound still terrifies and inspires. Sam Phillips has rated Wolf as his greatest discovery, above Elvis and all others.
His real name is Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the 21st President of the United States (Chester A. Arthur). He learned his blues in the 1930s whilst working as a farmer. Charley Patton was his main influence and taught him to play guitar. Burnett learned to play the harmonica from Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, who was married to his half-sister at that time (1933). He remained a full-time farmer, occasionally performing in the South both as a solo artist and with other blues artists, until he had to serve in the US Army for almost three years (early 1941 - November 1943). Leaving farming in 1948, he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas. In that year he formed a band (the House Rockers) which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt 'Guitar' Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction", and drummer Willie Steele. In 1950 the band got a 15-minute, six-days-a-week spot on Radio KWEM in West Memphis. Around that time Burnett became known as Howlin' Wolf, an appropriate nickname given his distinctive and compelling rasp of a voice.
Sam Phillips heard Wolf on the radio and said "This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies". And when Wolf came to his studio (Memphis Recording Service), he saw the same intensity. "He would sit there with those big feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp and I tell you, the greatest sight you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what it would be worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up, you'd see the veins in his neck and, buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."
Wolf's first recording was "Moanin' at Midnight", coupled with "How Many More Years", with Ike Turner on piano. Leased to Chess (Phillips had not yet started his own Sun label), both sides entered the R&B charts in late 1951, peaking at # 10 and # 4 respectively. Some unpleasantness ensued when Phillips also leased sides to RPM and Wolf seesawed between the two labels for some time. Eventually RPM gave up its claim and Howlin' Wolf was signed to an exclusive contract by Leonard Chess, who persuaded him to move to Chicago. Phillips recorded Wolf between May 1951 and October 1952 and these recordings are among the rawest, most haunting in the history of blues music.
From 1953 until 1973, Wolf recorded for Chess. His sound became less manic, but remained powerful. Hubert Sumlin was his regular guitarist and his understated solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice. In 1955-56 Wolf scored R&B hits with "Who Will Be Next" (# 14), "Smokestack Lightnin'" (# 8) and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" (# 8). Early in his recording career, Wolf wrote virtually all of his own material, but between 1959 and 1964 he recorded mostly songs from the pen of Willie Dixon, including such classics as "The Red Rooster" (later known as "Little Red Rooster"), "Wang-Dang Doodle", "Spoonful" and "Howlin' For My Baby" (all of which are included on the 1962 compilation LP "Off the Record", often called "The Rocking Chair album" for its cover).
Like many other original blues artists, Howlin' Wolf's fame became more widespread after the British Invasion. Bands began to cover blues classics or took them out on tour and introduced them to a new audience. The Wolf was a major influence on an untold number of groups, none more so than the Rolling Stones. When the Stones went to the USA in 1965 for an appearance on 'Shindig', they would only do so on the condition that Howlin' Wolf could be their special guest.
After the split from Dixon in 1964 he tried new sounds, but the results were more erratic (with a few exceptions like "Killing Floor"). In 1968 he even tried his hand at an ill-advised psychedelic LP ("The Howlin' Wolf Album"), which was savaged by the critics. But a single from the album, a remake of "Evil", gave him his sixth and last chart entry (# 43). He fared better with "The London Sessions", recorded with a bunch of British disciples (including Eric Clapton) in 1970 and released in 1971. It was his best selling LP, reaching # 79 on the pop album charts.
Wolf made his last recordings in 1973 and gave his last performance in Chicago in November 1975. Since the late 1960s he had been in poor health. He suffered several heart attacks and in 1970 his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident. He died at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Chicago on January 10, 1976, from complications of kidney disease and was buried in Oakridge Cemetery, outside of Chicago.
In 1980 Howlin' Wolf was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and in 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category Early influence. On September 17, 1994, the US Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29 cents postage stamp, to honour his legacy as an American blues musician.
Howlin' Wolf was a Lone Wolf, an inscrutable personality, with a deeply rooted suspicion against everything and everybody. Even to his closest friends he remained much of a mystery.
Official website : http://www.howlinwolf.com/
Biography : James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Moanin' at Midnight : The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. New York : Pantheon, 2004. 397 pages. (Revised paperback edition 2005.)
Discography : http://www.wirz.de/music/howlwfrm.htm
Acknowledgements : James Segrest, Colin Escott, Shaun Mather, Wikipedia.
Dik, October 2014
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