A Rockapaedia Obituary
Chester Burnett (Howlin' Wolf)
Bands: the Howlin' Wolf Band
Howlin' Wolf died aged sixty-five on 10th January, 1976 in
Hines, Illinois State, United States of America and was born as Chester Arthur Burnett on 10th June, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, United States of America. He claimed that his father was "Ethiopian" and his mother had Choctaw Amerindian ancestry on her father's side. Howlin' Wolf's physique earned him the nicknames "Big Foot Chester" and "Bull Cow" as a young man since he was almost two metres tall and often weighed close to 300 lbs.
The name "Howlin' Wolf" originated from his maternal grandfather, who would admonish him for killing his grandmother's chicks from reckless squeezing by warning him that wolves in the area would come and get him; the family would continue this by calling out "Burnett the Wolf".
Howlin' Wolf's parents separated when he was a year old. His mother and he would sing together in the choir of the Life Board Baptist Church near Gibson, Mississippi, and he would later claim that he got his musical talent from her. Howlin' Wolf's mother kicked him out of the house during the winter when he was a child for unknown reasons. He then moved in with his great-uncle Will Young, who had a large household and treated him badly. While in the Young household Howlin' Wolf worked almost all day and did not receive an education at the school house. When he was thirteen, he killed one of Young's hogs in a rage after the hog had caused him to ruin his dress clothes; this enraged Young who then whipped him while chasing him on a mule. Howlin' Wolf then ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home with his father's large family. During this era he went by the name "John D." to dissociate himself from his past, a name by which several of his relatives would know him for the rest of his life. At the peak of his success, Howlin' Wolf returned from Chicago to see his mother in Mississippi and was driven to tears when she rebuffed him: she refused to take his money offered to her saying it was from his "playing of the Devil's music".
In 1930 Howlin' Wolf met Charley Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Mississippi Delta at the time and the two became acquainted. Soon Patton was teaching Howlin' Wolf guitar and he recalled that "the first piece he ever played in his 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 and 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". Howlin' Wolf would perform the guitar tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life and 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". The country singer Jimmie Rodgers was also an influence but when he tried to emulate Rodgers's "blue yodel" but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. He was known to say, "I couldn't do no yodelin', so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine". His harmonica playing was modelled after that of Sonny Boy Williamson II, who taught him how to play in 1933.
During the 1930s, Howlin' Wolf performed in the Southern States as a solo performer and with numerous blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Willie Brown, Son House and Willie Johnson. By the end of the decade, he was a fixture in clubs, cpmplete with an harmonica and an early electric guitar.
On 9th April, 1941, Wolf was inducted into the United States Army and was stationed at several bases around the country. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, he was discharged on 3rd November, 1943 and returned to his family, who had recently moved to near West Memphis in Arkansas, and helped with the farming while also performing, as he had done in the 1930s. In 1948 he formed a band, which included the guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, the harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction" and the 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, Arkansas.
In 1951 Howlin' Wolf was discovered by A&R man Ike Turner who had him record several songs for both Sam Phillips at Sun Records (which licensed its recordings to Chess Records) and the Bihari brothers at Modern Records. Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included the guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. His first singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: "How Many More Years" backed with "Moaning at Midnight", released by Chess Records, and "Riding in the Moonlight" backed with "Moaning at Midnight", released 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 the Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year he had persuaded the guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's understated solos and surprisingly subtle phrasing perfectly complemented Howlin' Wolf's huge voice. The lineup of the Howlin' Wolf band changed often over the years as he employed 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. Howlin' Wolf was able to attract some of the best musicians available because of his policy, unusual among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, even including unemployment insurance and Social Security contributions. With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late 1950s, Hubert Sumlin was 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. Howlin' Wolf had a series of hits with songs written by Willie Dixon, who had been hired by the Chess brothers in 1950 as a songwriter, and during that period the competition between Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf was intense. Willie Dixon reported "Every once in a while Wolf would mention the fact that, 'Hey man, you wrote that song for Muddy. How come you won't write me one like that?' But when you'd write for him he wouldn't like it." So, Dixon decided to use reverse psychology on him, by introducing the songs to Howlin' Wolf as written for Muddy, thus inducing Howlin' Wolf to accept them.
In the 1950's Howlin' Wolf had five songs on 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)". His first LP, Moanin' in the Moonlight, was released in 1959. As was standard practice in that era, it was a collection of previously released singles.
In the early 1960s Howlin' Wolf recorded several songs that became his most famous, despite receiving no radio play: "Wang Dang Doodle", "Back Door Man", "Spoonful", " Red Rooster" (later known as the Rolling Stone's "Little Red Rooster"), "I Ain't Superstitious", "Goin' Down Slow", and "Killing Floor", many of which were written by Willie Dixon. Several became part of the repertoires of British and American rock groups, who further popularized them.
During the blues revival in the 1950's and 1960's, black blues musicians found a new audience among white youths, and Howlin' Wolf was among the first to capitalize on it. He toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, produced by the German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the popular television program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose recording of "Little Red Rooster" had reached number one in the UK in 1964. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Howlin' Wolf recorded albums with others, including those accompanied by the British rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others.
The Howlin' Wolf Album, like rival bluesman Muddy Waters's album Electric Mud, was designed to appeal to the hippie audience. The album had an attention-getting cover: large black letters on a white background proclaiming "This is Howlin' Wolf's new album. He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either." The album cover may have contributed to its poor sales. Chess co-founder Leonard Chess admitted that the cover was a bad idea, saying, "I guess negativity isn't a good way to sell records. Who wants to hear that a musician doesn't like his own music?"
Howlin' Wolf's last album was 1973's The Back Door Wolf. Entirely composed of new material, it was recorded with musicians who regularly backed him on stage. The album is shorter (a little more than 35 minutes) than any other he recorded, as a result of his declining health.
Unlike many other blues musicians who left an impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin' Wolf was always financially successful. Although functionally illiterate into his forties, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a General Educational Development (GED) diploma and later to study accounting and other business courses to help manage his career.
Howlin' Wolf met his future wife, Lillie, when she attended one of his performances at a Chicago club. She and her family were urban and educated and were not involved in what was considered the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nevertheless, he was attracted to her as soon as he saw her in the audience. He immediately pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. Together, they raised Betty and Barbara, Lillie's daughters from an earlier relationship.
After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Howlin Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary but benefits such as health insurance. This enabled him to hire his pick of available musicians and keep his band one of the best around. According to his step-daughters, Howlin Wolf was never financially extravagant. For instance, he drove a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive, flashy car.
Howlin'Wolf's health began declining in the late 1960s. He had several heart attacks and suffered bruised kidneys in a car accident in 1970. Concerned for his health, the bandleader Eddie Shaw limited him to performing twenty-one songs per concert.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf in its "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. These were: 1956's "Smokestack Lightning", 1960's "Spoonful", 1961's "The Red Rooster".
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