Howlin’ Wolf

(1910 – 1976)

A towering, larger than life performer with a distinctive, raspy growl, Howlin’ Wolf was among the most influential Blues musicians of the postwar years. A Mississippi native who relocated to Chicago and recorded for that city’s Chess Records, Wolf was at the forefront of transforming the acoustic Blues of the rural South to the electric, urban Blues of Chicago, and he was a particular favorite of many early Blues-influenced Rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett in the small town of White Station, Mississippi. After his parents spilt up he was sent to live with an uncle who treated him harshly and at age 13 he ran away to live with his father, a sharecropper. Wolf was inspired to play by the many Bluesmen who traveled through the Mississippi Delta, especially Charley Patton. In 1928, after receiving a guitar for a birthday present, Burnett convinced Patton to give him lessons. Wolf was influenced by Patton’s powerful, gravelly singing, a style that naturally suited Wolf, who was over six feet tall and weighed close to 300 pounds.

Soon Burnett was performing in juke joints by night while working his father’s farm by day. Chester made a strong impression on audiences, playing one of the first electric guitars many audience members had ever seen, and accompanying himself with his percussive harmonica playing and emotive singing, growling, and howling – a raw style that earned him the nickname “Howlin’ Wolf.”

In 1941 Wolf was drafted and served three years in the army. He was discharged after suffering a nervous breakdown and by 1948 had settled in West Memphis, Arkansas, and formed an electric band with a hard-edged style. Wolf caught the ear of Sam Phillips, a Memphis recording studio owner who would go on to found the legendary Sun Records, and Philips recorded Wolf and leased some of the sides to Chicago’s Chess Records. Released in 1952, they did well enough for Chess to offer Wolf a contract, and in 1953 Wolf moved to Chicago, where he would live for the rest of his life.

At Chess Howlin’ Wolf’s sound would change, adopting some of the backbeat Chicago Blues was known for and relying less on pure aggression. New guitarist Hubert Sumlin helped shape Wolf’s new sound with his angular riffing and wild soloing. When Chess paired Wolf with songs by house writer Willie Dixon, the result was a string of classics, including "The Red Rooster," "Back Door Man," "Spoonful," and "Wang Dang Doodle.”

By the mid 60’s American Blues was being discovered in Europe and when Wolf toured there he was treated like visiting royalty — especially in London, where scores of young bands were playing repertoires built largely of covers of Chess Blues and R&B records. Among them were the Rolling Stones, who were so enamored of Wolf that in 1965 they invited him to appear with them on the American television show Shindig.

Wolf enjoyed the acclaim, but by the 1970s he was a sick man, barely surviving many heart attacks and suffering from kidney damage. He still gave spirited performances, as his strength allowed, retiring only when he was no longer physically able. He died in 1976 of complications from kidney disease.