Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most influential blues musicians ever. Period. Story over. He had an unbelievable voice, and his guitar and harmonica styles set him apart from so many others in the early days of the blues.
Born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, which was little more than a railroad stop between Aberdeen and West Point, in the hill country of Mississippi. His mother and father separated when he was very young, but that didn’t stop him or his love for music. After the parents split up, his father moved to the delta while his mother, also poor, would make some money selling hand written gospel songs. Later she would disown her son for playing the devils music. She left him with his uncle, Will Young, who was a fire and brimstone preacher in White Station. Chester even sang in the choir back then but when he turned 13 he ran away from uncle Will, who treated him so mean that one of the Wolf’s childhood friends said, “Will Young is the meanest man between here and hell”.
The Wolf wound up in the Delta with his real father and stepmother, a slew of stepsiblings and a half-sister, who lived on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville. It was there that Chester became fascinated with the local blues musicians like Charley Patton. His father bought him a guitar in January of 1928 and he somehow convinced Patton, who lived on the Dockery Plantation, to give him guitar lessons, and also got some tips on harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller). Seems there was more than one Sonny Boy Williamson. When he wasn’t working on his father’s farm he would travel the Delta with other musicians like Sonnyboy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown.
Chester had a voice that was unique in that it was so raw, and so forceful. He would literally scare other musicians with it, perhaps because of his stage presence, or just the physical size of the man. He was 6’3” tall and weighed in around 230 lbs., and had a size 16 shoe. Johnny Shines was quoted that he was afraid of The Wolf, like you’d be of some wild animal, because of the sound he was giving off.
In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included James Cotton and Junior Parker, guitarists Matt Murphy, Pat Hare, and Willie Johnson. He landed a job at a radio station, KWEM, playing the blues. He was discovered in 1951 by Sam Phillips, who took him into a studio where he recorded “Moaning at Midnight” and “How Many More Years”. Little Feat did a version of “How Many More Years” as a medley with 44 Blues. Lowell loved The Wolf. Phillips leased the recording to Chess Records and it was released in 1952 and climbed to the top 10 billboard R&B chart. With that success The Wolf recorded more songs for Phillips, who kept leasing them to Chess and RPM records. Chess finally won out and signed The Wolf and moved him to Chicago, where he lived out the rest of his life. It was there that Chester Burnett wrote and recorded blues standards like “Spoonful”, “Killin’ Floor”, “Little Red Rooster” (that was covered by the Rolling Stones), “Back Door Man” (covered by the Doors) “I Ain’t Superstitious”, and my favorite …. “Evil”!
Joined by Hubert Sumlin, the great guitarist who played sometimes with Muddy Waters, The Wolf continued to perform into the 70’s until his health began to fade. Now a husband and father, he bought farmland down in Arkansas where he would hunt, fish, and farm his land. He died in Hines, Illinois, on January 10th, 1976 while being operated on for a brain tumor.
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall Of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1981, and as one blues critic put it “if you want to know what stage presence is, just point at Howlin’ Wolf and divide by ten.”
He was a blues man though through and through.