Howlin’ Wolf: Biography, Songs, & Facts

Chester Arthur Burnett was born on June 10th, 1910 in White Station Mississippi. His father, Leon “Dock” Burnett, worked tirelessly as a sharecropper while his mother, Gertrude Jones, labored as a maid and cook. Born into a world where Jim Crow laws and lynching were the everyday reality, many might assume that Burnett had it as bad as many other poor blacks born into the Mississippi Delta at that time.

Those assumptions would be wrong though, as Chester Burnett arguably had it worse than many. With his parents separating a year after his birth, Chester was left in the care of his mother, whom he would later credit as his first musical influence.

For reasons still unclear to this day, whether due to mental instability or disdain at her darker complexioned offspring, Chester’s mother turned him away as a child, abandoning him in a world already pitted against him. Chester walked for a number of miles across frozen winter ground with burlap sacks serving as make-shift shoes tied around his small feet.

He found his way to the home of his great-uncle Will Young. Young took the boy in and from that point on, Burnett’s life went from bad to worse. Young was a cruel man who terrified not only his family but his neighbors as well. Leroy Swift, a childhood friend of Burnett’s, described Young as “the meanest man between here and hell.” He had little patience for young ones, and even less with young Chester.

A hulking man with partial hearing loss, Young was prone to fits of violence that manifested itself to each of his family members at some point in time, though Chester was the focus of most of Young’s temper, often subjected to whippings with switches or a leather plow line. Past these harsh physical punishments, Young also tormented Chester mentally, not allowing him to sit with the other children during meals, often times going as far as withholding food from Chester.

So, like a small animal, Chester Burnett, shoeless and in rags would scour the nearby train tracks, scavenging for bits of food that railway workers had thrown away as they passed. Fear for his uncle also drove Chester to prefer the outdoors, often seeking refuge under the house like a stray dog. The other children would sit with him there and play, but all fun would come to a grinding halt at the first sight of Will Young.

For all the suffering and pain he endured at the hands of his family members, Chester Burnett might have turned out to be nothing but the shell of a man, a boy more likely to have been raised by wolves. Yet Burnett remained kind-hearted, drawn to music and singing in his spare time.

Though he was barred from receiving a formal education by his uncle, Chester would often teach his cousins and friends how to sing. Leroy Swift’s sister Priscilla “Silla” Swift once said, “He was good- I swear he was. No mother, no father, nobody but them people that took him and raised him. That boy sure had a hard time….

He was sad, but he could sing. He’d sing so pitiful and so sweet, and we just loved him. He sure was a nice person. He was a good-hearted person, and he’d teach us how to sing…. He couldn’t read or write, but damn, he could sing!” Seemingly sentimental, this respite that music provided for Chester Burnett would prove to be of monumental importance, as the anguish of his formative years would cultivate one of the greatest artists to ever set foot out of the Mississippi Delta.

Unlike his contemporaries of the time, Howlin’ Wolf, as he would later come to be called, started his musical career relatively late. At the age of 41, he walked into the front office of the Memphis Recording Studio with no appointment and few words. By that point, standing at an imposing six foot six, his physical presence spoke for itself.

An appointment was unnecessary, as owner Sam Phillips had already heard about this massive man from Ike Turner, a man who went by the peculiar name of Howlin’ Wolf.

When asked later, Wolf would say that the moniker was given to him as a young boy by his paternal grandfather. Burnett recalled that he had a bad habit of getting ahold of is grandmothers chicks, and not knowing any better, would hold them too tightly, thus killing them. Apparently, this became such a regular occurrence that Chester’s grandfather warned him that if he should do it again, a wolf would come and snatch him up.

From then on, whenever Chester misbehaved, his grandfather and other family members would chase him into hiding under his bed, howling at him and calling him Wolf. While the fear may have faded into a distant memory, the name stuck, fitting this wild man better than any suit he ever owned. Upon his arrival at the Memphis Recording Studio, Wolf had already made a name for himself in West Tennessee.

The original members of his crew there included M.T Matt Murphy, Junior Parker, Willie Johnson, Willie Steele, and Destruction on piano. Their sound was primitive and carried through with Wolf as he moved on to Chicago. This sound gave way to popular hits like “Crying at Daybreak” and “Moaning at Midnight.”

A string of successful songs released as singles became the body of Wolf’s first LP and, arguably, his most influential album ever released: “Moanin’ in the Moonlight”.

This album featured many of Howlin’ Wolfs greatest hits such as “How Many More Years”, a catchy song with a repetitious bass line that resembled traditional blues standards, and the twelve-bar blues song “ “Evil (Is Going On)”, an emotional number with a syncopated backbeat interposed with occasional instrumental improvisations and Wolf’s somber falsetto.

The star of the album, however, was Howlin’ Wolf’s most recent hit up to that point, “Smokestack Lightnin’”. A mesmerizing one chord piece, the song opens with Wolf’s characteristic “howling” acapella, before the song warps into a haunting mid-tempo groove that thrusts the audience into the feeling of imminent danger and loneliness that the song represented.

“Moanin’ in the Moonlight” was recorded at Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois and at Memphis Recording Service in Memphis, Tennessee in 1951, however, it was not released until 1959.

This was due to the fact that Wolf was signed to multiple recording labels at the time, and contracts kept his singles from being woven into an album under any one of the labels who so desperately wanted it for their name. Wolf was well known for being willing to sing for anyone at any time if the price was right.

With no formal education or basic schooling of any kind, Wolf was not aware of the legal repercussions of this until it was too late. Though not the only reason, this contractual chaos caused the delay of the album by eight years. Another reason for the album being released when it was can also be attributed to the social and political climate within the music industry as well as the country itself.

In the previous year, the albums released by black artists included “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud” by Miles Davis, “The Atomic Mr. Basie” by Count Basie, “Ellington Indigos” by Duke Ellington, and “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook” by Ella Fitzgerald to name a few.

Largely made up of instrumentals and light-hearted subject matter, there wasn’t a market for the kind of music Howlin’ Wolf was waiting to give the world in one fell swoop. As famous for his onstage antics as he was for his ferocious vocals, Wolf may not have been as well received until 1959 when the album was released.

This was a man who could become savage and unpredictable onstage, with numerous firsthand accounts detailing just how crazed his performances could get. One story recounted by Robert Palmer tells of a man possessed by a hellish spirit, singing at a Memphis performance and, when told to wrap up his set, defied the off stage hands by singing into the microphone clamped under his right arm as he scaled the curtains on the side of the stage.

Making his way to the top before easily sliding back down, Wolf stole the night from the powerhouse of acts that evening, including Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, and Little Milton. He was known to get down on all fours and give rides to particularly exuberant females in his audience. His most outrageous stunt involved shaking up a coke bottle prior to his performance and shoving it down his pants.

Before he began singing, he would unzip his fly, pop the top of the bottle, and spray his audience as they cheered fanatically, entranced by this creature, half man, half beast. By 1959, music of greater impact and toughness was making its way on to the charts from black artists.

These include Chuck Berry’s “Chuck Berry Is On Top”, Ray Charles’ “The Genius of Ray Charles”, Bo Diddley’s “Go Bo Diddley”, and Miles Davis’ groundbreaking “Kind of Blue”. By the time “Moanin’ in the Moonlight” was released in August of that year, Americans were more than ready for the Mighty Wolf.

The album was released to the sounds of Berry Gordy Jr. founding Tamla Records, the Day the Music Died with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson being killed in a plane crash, Jimmie Hendrix buying his first electric guitar, and the happening of the first Grammy Awards.

These momentous occasions in music were marked by the backdrop of a country expanding its power and experiencing the throes of technological advancements. Within the year, the U.S. admitted Alaska and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th, states of America, successfully launched and recovered the first living beings into space, successfully tested the first intercontinental ballistic missile, and introduced the first Xerox printer to the public.

Also at this time, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum with the push for economic equality and better opportunities for employment.

This transition from old to new in the country was reflected in Howlin’ Wolf’s music; while he screamed and wailed like an unleashed beast, playing old-fashioned harmonica, the band played super amped guitar and jazz- infused piano, seamlessly reflecting the evolution between custom and modernization that was beginning to transform the country as well as the Delta Blues.

“Moanin’ in the Moonlight” sported an impressive lineup of well-known musicians at the time, helping it to gain popularity. The album’s personnel included Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, and Otis “Smoky” Smothers on guitar, Willie Steele, Earl Phillips, Fred Below, and S.P. Leary on drums, Ike Turner, Hosea Lee Kennard, and Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Adolph “Billy” Dockins on tenor saxophone, Howlin’ Wolf on harmonica, and Sam Phillips, and Leonard and Phil Chess as producers.

With the longest track clocking in at three minutes and seven seconds, each song hit you relentlessly, leaving you ready and wanting more. The theme of the album is one of heartbreak and loneliness that finds its way to a melancholy hope with the albums final track, “Somebody in My Home”, where Wolf seems to ask for faith from his brothers and sisters in their fight for freedom and acceptance.

He observes that the road has been hard and long for everyone, but that there is one hope in his heart, and that is for one love undivided. The song simultaneously embraces and rejects the times; while the lyrics of loss and pain are highly relatable to a mass audience, themes of independence and liberation ring through the woeful tones and merciless howling of Wolf’s vocals.

The impact of the album was epic. It received a W.C. Handy Award for best Vintage/Reissue Album. Rolling Stone ranked it at No.153 on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “Smokestack Lightin’” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

It was listed No.291 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as a “Classic of Blues Recordings in 1985. The album’s success also lead to a later album released in 1971; “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions”, one of the first “super session” blues albums that set a traditional blues master among the famous second-generation rock and rollers. After a chance encounter backstage at a concert, Chess Staff.

Producer Norman Dayron struck a deal with guitar players Mike Bloomfield of Electric Flag and Eric Clapton of Cream to record an album with Howlin’ Wolf.

What came out of this spontaneous offer was one of the most diverse albums in history, with personnel including among Bloomfield and Clapton, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, and Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr of The Beatles, along with Wolf’s usual lineup of Hubert Sumlin, Phil Upchurch, Lafayette Leake, and Willie Dixon.

Musicians were so keen at the prospect of playing with a great like Howlin’ Wolf that many are credited on the album as playing congas, shakers, and even cowbells, just to say that they were there. A deluxe edition of the album was released in 003 with a second disc featuring outtakes and different mixes from the session. The album charted in the US on the Billboard 200 at 79, and the R&B charts at 28.

The reach of Howlin’ Wolf’s music cannot be underestimated, with bands like The Rolling Stones agreeing to do shows like “Shindig” only if Howlin’ Wolf would be there to perform. Artists like Paul Burlison, a founding member of The Rock and Roll Trio, was the first white rocker to reflect Wolf’s influence, employing distorted guitar techniques like those of Willie Dixons present on Wolf’s early recordings.

Burlison, in turn, influenced English guitarist Mick Green of The Pirates. Green would go on to influence the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. The perpetuation of techniques studied and adapted from Wolf is present in so many of the great Rock and Roll artists we know today, the bulk of whom originated in the UK, where Howlin’ Wolf’s music, like so many other blues music from the Delta, found its first home.

This is why, during the British invasion, Howlin’ Wolf’s career experienced a revival along with the renaissance for American roots music that accompanied the incoming rockers from across the Atlantic, who couldn’t believe that their American fans had no clue who their favorite artists were, the men and women they idolized.

From the time he was born, Chester Arthur Burnett seemed destined to live a wild life, defined by his tumultuous childhood, devoid of any true familial love and care. Drawing on that ache and the culture of his homeland, Howlin’ Wolf helped globalize southern blues. With the success of “Moanin’ in the Moonlight”, he solidified his spot in the tower of greats, paving the way for so many other artists.

Learning from Charley Patton, he took the tricks and methods he learned to help so many others. He taught Johnny Shines how to play rudimentary guitar. He performed and toured with Robert Johnson and Rice Miller. He bought Floyd Jones his first guitar. These artists went on to become influences for Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac, and folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan.

Pete Townshend of The Who, American guitarist, and blues musician Roy Buchanan, and singer/songwriter Robbie Robertson were also known Wolf disciples, following his career and honing their craft by listening to the blues master. It didn’t matter that Wolf couldn’t read or write.

What mattered to those listening was the man himself, the wolf behind the howl, the monster that was described as someone whose singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits could never be matched.

Here was a man whose story could be heard, felt, and understood across racial, social, politically, and continental divides to create an impact zone so wide it forever changed the face of Rock and Roll. No matter how he got it, whether he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, Howlin’ Wolf knew that the song lived in the heart, and that he had to sing it from there no matter what.

Sam Phillips said it best, recalling “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’” That soul lives on, continuing through even today in modern rock, with the howls of so many cutting through to something more.

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