Howlin' Wolf - His Life

by Tony Arnold
(thanks to Geoff Pullen)

Chester Arthur Burnett was born on 10th June 1910 in West Point, Mississippi. At 13 he moved with his family across the state to Ruleville and began working on the Young and Mara plantation. He became known as a 'difficult child' which earned him the nickname "Howlin' Wolf". Five years later, his father bought him a guitar and he began playing for country functions and also 'busking' on the streets of small local towns. Whilst continuing to also work on farms in Arkansas his travels became more far reaching and, during the early 1930's, he met seasoned blues entertainers including Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Johnson. Sonny Boy Williamson later became the Wolf's brother-in-law and taught him to play the harmonica. He also met the legendary Charlie Patton and recalls "It was he who started me off to playing. He took a liking to me, and I asked him would he learn me, and at night, after I'd get off work, I'd go and hang around".

During World War II, Wolf was called up for active service and after his return home he returned to a farmers life in Arkansas. However, this was not to last long and by 1948 he had formed his first 'electric' group with the likes of Junior Parker, James Cotton, Matt Murphy, Pat Hare and Willie Johnson. He also began working as a disc jockey and advertising salesman for the radio station KWEM in Memphis where his reputation brought him to the notice of Sam Phillips who organised Wolf's first recording session for Sun Records in 1951. The songs were "Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years" with Ike Turner playing piano and Willie Johnson on guitar. The songs became big hits on the rhythm 'n' blues charts.

Wolf was 41 now and he was recording alongside B.B. King who was at that time in his early twenties and had more interested in the 'modern' blues than the 20's and 30's blues which the Wolf was singing. He was now recording in Memphis with a regular band of Willie Johnson (guitar), Albert Williams (piano) and Willie Steel (piano).

In 1953, Wolf moved and settled in Chicago. This brought him in contention with Muddy Waters as they vied for position in Chicago's clubs and at Chess Records. Wolf differed from Muddy as he was reluctant to cast off his southern blues background and at that time, Willie Dixon saw Waters as more suitable for his new compositions "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I Just Want To Make Love To You". Dixon had said "Muddy is the kind of person you can give any kind of lyric, he's what you call a quick study. Wolf, you can't give him too many words, because he gets 'em all jumbled up. And if he gets 'em right, he still ain't gonna get the right meaning". Wolf was therefore left to play southern blues looking 'backwards to the backwoods'. However, he kept alive in Chicago the sound of the South that many of the city's black residents had grown up with.

In 1956, Wolf recorded "Smokestack Lightnin'" with Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin on guitars, Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Earl Phillips on drums. Kennard and Sumlin gave Wolf's mid-50's recordings their essential character, Sumlin's guitar playing perfectly matching the contours of Wolf's chants, hollers and howls.

Through the 50's and 60's, Wolf was working regularly in the Chicago clubs such as the "708" and "Syvio's Lounge" and was frequently active at Chess recording sessions with great pianists like Otis Spann and Johnny Jones. It was in 1959/60 that the Wolf's songs began to take on new energy and moved with a Rock 'n' Roll pace. "Howlin' For My Baby", "Wang-Dang-Doodle" and "Shake For Me" were songs recorded at this time.

In the sixties, the Wolf began touring not only the States but also Europe, and in 1971 he recorded the "London Sessions" album with Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Ringo Starr, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, English blues musicians who were almost 40 years his juniors. These musician's had been singing and recording southern blues for some time and in response to the view that they were "merely vampires, sustaining themselves on the stolen essence of other men's lives", Muddy Waters had said "Before the Rolling Stones, people didn't know anything about me and didn't want to know anything. I was making records that were called 'race records'. Then the Rolling Stones and other English bands came along, playing this music, and now the kids are buying my records and listening to them."

By 1975 he was tired and ill. He had had several heart attacks at the beginning of the decade and was now suffering from cancer. At the end of 1975 he went into the Veteran Administration Hospital in Illinois and died on 10th January 1976.

Big Foot Chester

Sam Phillips, on his first meeting with Howlin' Wolf, was bowled over. "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I've ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you'd see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."