Chester Arthur Burnett, or Howlin’ Wolf as he is more commonly known is one of the Chicago Blues greats. Born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910, he became a legend in his own lifetime. Wolf was an imposing figure, 191cm tall and weighing 275 pounds, his voice was once described as sounding as if ‘he had looked inside the gates of hell and lived to tell the tale’.
Howlin’ Wolf started playing guitar in 1930 after meeting delta blues legend, Charlie Patton. Patton would not only teach Wolf the guitar but also inspire the showman within him. Speaking about Patton, Wolf said:
“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”
This showmanship would stay with Howlin’ Wolf throughout his career. Even when sat down he could captivate an audience and with a stern look, keep his band in line.
During the 1930s, Wolf played mostly as a solo performer. He played alongside musicians such as Johnny Shines, Robert Johnson and Son House, playing harmonica and a primitive electric guitar. In 1948, Wolf formed a band, they would receive airplay in West Memphis on KWEM radio station and start to garner a local following.
In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded a session with Howlin’ Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service, the studio where a young Elvis Presley recorded early material. This boosted Wolf’s profile and he released singles on both Chess Records and RMP Records.
Howlin’ Wolf relocated to Chicago once a contract was secured with Chess Records and put together a new band. While in Chicago, Wolf persuaded guitarist, Hubert Sumlin to relocate to with him and he stayed a permanent member of Wolf’s band until the end. Sumlin’s unique style of playing perfectly complimented Howlin’ Wolf’s voice and helped define what would be known as the Chicago Blues sound.
During the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, Howlin’ Wolf would gain a new audience of fans, many of these would be at the other side of the Atlantic, in England. Wolf inspired bands such as Cream, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and Fleetwood Mac and toured Europe in 1964. Due to the insistence of The Rolling Stones, Howlin’ Wolf appeared on the television program, Shindig! The Stones had recorded a Holwin’ Wolf song, Little Red Rooster and wanted to pay their debts to a musician they admired. It’s great to watch an awe-struck Brian Jones mesmerised by his idol.
Unlike other blues artists of the time, Wolf was financially successful and able not only to pay his band a healthy salary but also included benefits such as health insurance.
During the late 1960s, Wolf’s health began to deteriorate. He had suffered several heart attacks and had bruised kidneys as a result of a car accident in 1970. Due to ill health Wolf would begin to limit his set time to only six songs per concert.
Howlin’ Wolf died on 10th January, 1976 due to complications during kidney surgery. He is buried in Oakridge Cemetary, outside of Chicago. He has not only left us a powerful body of work but continues to inspire musicians and performers the world over. Nobody has ever sounded like him and chances are they never will. To listen to the man at his best, I would recommend listening to ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ and ‘Smokestack Lightin’. His hoarse baritone never sounded so good.