Chester Arthur Burnett, best known as Howlin'
Wolf, learned to play guitar from Charley Patton. He picked up
harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller). Jimi Hendrix
sat in with him. Guitarists such as Pat Hare, Jimmy Rogers,
Buddy Guy, Freddy King, Matt "Guitar" Murphy,
Eric Clapton and Hubert Sumlin have all played with Wolf.
He was born in West Point, Mississippi on June 10, 1910.Wolf's parents,
Leon "Dock" Burnett and Gertrude Young separated and his mother
left him with his uncle, Will Young.*Chester was always fond of music.
He sang in the choir at the White Station Baptist church, where Will
Young preached. Young was very strict and treated young Wolf badly.
was thirteen, Chester ran away to live with his father on the delta,
near Ruleville, Mississippi (birthplace of Jimmy Rogers), on
and Morrow Plantation.
Howlin' Wolf at Ann Arbor Blues Fest (photos by Doug Fulton
-used with permission of his estate -represented by
The legendary Charley Patton was a local blues musician and inspired
young Chester. Burnett took guitar lessons from Patton. Wolf's brother-in-law,
Rice Miller (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson), later tought him harmonica.
Howlin' Wolf developed his singing from listening to records of his favorite
artists, such as Tommy Johnson , Jimmy "the Yodeling Brakeman"
Rodgers, the Mississippi Sheiks and Tampa Red. Johnson's
"Cool Drink of Water Blues" on Complete
Recorded Works 1928-1929, is where Wolf got "I asked for
water, she gave me gasoline" and his falsetto singing obviously influenced
Wolf's vocal style
When not working on his Dock Burnett's farm, he traveled with other musicians,
like Patton and Williamson to the Delta to play. Howlin' Wolf's performance
was legendary. With his powerful voice and 6'3" 240 pound presence,
he could literally rock the stage.
In 1941, Chester Burnett was drafted into the Army Signal Corps* . After
the Army, he returned to his father's farm. Chester would work the farm
during the week and play the blues on weekends.
In 1948, Wolf set out to play the blues full-time and moved to West Memphis,
Arkansas and started a band that played on the local radio station, KWEM,
and was popular locally. His group at times included harmonica players,
James Cotton and Junior Parker, and guitarists, Willie
Johnson, Pat Hare and Matt "Guitar" Murphy.
In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded Howlin' Wolf 's first two records,
"Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years" at
Memphis Recording Services(later to be known as the studio of Sun
Records). The lineup was small- Wolf on vocals and harmonica, Willie
Johnson(not to be confused with Blind Willie Johnson) on guitar,
Willie Steele on drums and either Albert Williams or Ike
Turner on piano. The sound was HUGE and would impact music around
the world. While Hubert Sumlin is often(deservedly) thought of
as the anchor of Wolf's sound; in the early days it was Willie Johnson,
whose "Charley Patton meets T Bone Walker" fusion
created the Howlin' Wolf guitar sound.Willie had grown up in the delta
like Wolf, seen and played with Charley Patton and Willie Brown,
yet was influenced equally by the swinging sounds of electric players
like T Bone Walker. In the same way that McKinley Morganfield
(a.k.a. Muddy Waters) was doing in Chicago; Chester Burnett was mixing
delta blues and the swinging sound of popular music with heavily amplified
electric guitar riffs.
Both tunes can be found on "
Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight ". "Moanin at Midnight"
is classic Wolf. It opens with Wolf moaning followed by the lick guitar
playing a hypnotic lick and Wolf's harp. Its a modal kind of groove
and doesn't really have chord changes. The verses are punctuated by moans,
falsettos and harp and occasional guitar licks. This is pretty raw as
far as recording quality, but the distortion works with Wolf's literally
eerie voice. Its the delta blues, heavily amplified. "Moanin'
at Midnight" is an up tempo boogie that starts with the piano playing
eight note triplets to establish the groove followed by the guitar. This
is modern Wolf, much more modern. There is a traditional progression with
some swinging guitar (heavily distorted). Willie Johnson's guitar
work on Wolf's records from this period is pretty amazing. The harp shows
Rice Miller's influence. The lyrics are a little more pop. Still,
the intensity is there and their band drives on this tune. It must have
been amazing to see Wolf live in the early '50s.
After recording, Phillips leased the songs to Chess
Story of Chess Records tells the history of the legendary Chicago label)
and both songs hit the top ten of the Billboard
R&B charts. They also leased masters to Chess competitor, the
brothers, who released them on their Los Angeles based RPM label until
late 1952 when Wolf signed exclusively with Chess
Records. He then moved to Chicago, where his career took off.
Leonard Chess, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Rice
Miller (Sonny Boy Wiiliamson II)
His tunes from this period alternate between his modern sound (on tunes
like "Howlin' Wolf Boogie" and "Mr Highway Man") and
his delta roots. "Saddle My Pony (Gonna Find My Baby Out In The World
Somewhere)" which sounds very similar to the way Charley Patton,
Son House and Willie Brown played it.
Wolf's first Chicago sesion was in March 1954 and featured Otis Spann
on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Earl Phillips on Drums,
and Lee Cooper on guitar (Willie Johnson and Wolf's Memphis
band didn't move North right away). This session included one of Wolf's
best, "No Place To Go" (which was later covered by Fleetwood
Mac and can be found on The
Complete Blue Horizon Recordings) and "Rockin' Daddy". Its
interesting to compare this version(found on The
Chess Box)with the version on Wolf's London
Sessions to see the effect of Hubert Sumlin on Wolf's later
sound. Stevie Ray Vaughn's cover of this was one of his signature
In May of '54 Hubert made his recording debut with Wolf as 2nd guitarist
with Spann, Phillips, Dixon and Jody Wiliams on lead. They recorded
two tunes- "Baby How Long" and "Evil (is goin' on)".
"Evil" is also the first tune by legendary Chess songwriter/bassist/A
& R man Willie Dixon that Wolf recorded. Dixon's lyrics fit
Howlin' Wolf's singing and the groove is great. The same lineup came back
in October of that year to cut two of Wolf's tunes, "I'll be Around"
and "Forty Four" (covered by Little Feat and used as
the basis for a song on the Bluesbreakers
with Eric Clapton by John Mayall ). The Chester Burnett/Willie
Dixon/Hubert Sumlin team and variations would be a big money maker for
Chess and the core of Wolf's sound from the mid '50s through the '60s
and would continue for the rest of Wolf's career. In June of 1960 Wolf,
Spann,Sumlin, Freddy King and Fred Below cut 3 Dixon tunes
-"Backdoor Man", "Spoonful" and "Wang Dang Doodle".
"Backdoor Man" was covered by The Blues Project and The
Doors. "Spoonful" was covered by The Paul Butterfield
Blues Band,Cream, John Hammond and every garage band
of the era. "Wang Dang Doodle" (a song Wolf detested) wound
up getting covered by the Pointer Sisters. These songs helped make
Chester Burnett's music an inspiration for a generation of young English
and American blues fans (like me) who had never been in a delta Juke Joint
but identified anyway.
Hubert Sumlin & Howling Wof (photo courtesy of Brian
In Chicago, Howlin' Wolf's main competition was singer Muddy Waters.
They both claimed to be the top dog of Chicago blues. Many top Chicago
side played in both bands. At one point Hubert Sumlin played in
Muddy's band (that's Hubert on "40 Days and 40 Nights") and
Jimmy Rogers played w/ Wolf. They both play on Wolf's 1961 sessions
which include some of his best stuff including "Shake for Me",
"The Red Rooster", "Down in the Bottom", "Goin'
Down Slow" and "Ain't Superstitious" (all of these tunes
are in the excellent The
Chess Box which is a good survey of Wolf's music throughout his career)
. Their competition included covers of each other's tunes,. made each
of them work harder and made the Chicago sound (and the Chess brothers)
a big force in the R& B world of the '50s and '60s. Many of these
tunes were crafted to fit Chester Burnett's persona as Howlin' Wolf by
Willie Dixon, who also played on the 1961 dates
In 1964, he married his sweetheart Lillie Hanley. As Soul Music and rock
started to gain popularity, Wolf's gutbucket style was less popular with
black audiences. The folk music boom and the 'English Invasion' (which
he inspiried partly) boosted Wolf's career and attracted a new young white
audience for albums (Wolf, like most blues artists reached their audience
via singles) and concert dates( as opposed to the club and dance dates
that Wolf had done for years). Groups such as The Animals, The
Jeff Beck Group, The Yardbirds, Led Zepplin and The
Rolling Stones all emulated his music. In '64 he played dates Europe
with Willie Dixon, Fred Below, Sunnyland Slim and
Hubert Sumlin. The Rolling Stones insisted that Wolf perform on
the TV show Shindig
if they were to appear, so on May 26, 1965 Wolf was on TV with the kids.
He began playing with newer artists of the time, such as Eric Clapton
and Jimi Hendrix. In the late 1960's, Wolf's health started to
fail and he suffered several heart attacks. A car crash in Toronto in
1970 severely damaged his kidneys and disabled Chester Burnett. Wolf kept
singing and performing until his death, but for the rest of his life he
had a dialysis done every three days. While most of his recordings from
this period are so-so, The London Sessions LP has some good tracks and
an interesting bit where he teaches a frightened Eric Clapton how
to play 'Red Rooster'.
Howlin' Wolf's last performance was at the Chicago Ampitheater in November
of 1975. He entered the Veterans Administration Hospital at Hines, Illinois
in mid December. Chester Burnett died on January 10, 1976 of heart failure
during surgery and his body was buried at the
Oak Ridge Cemetery in Hillside Ilinois. In 1991, Wolf was inducted
posthumously into the
and Roll Hall of Fame.
* Some of this information on this site was researched
by by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, co-authors of the great Howlin'
"Moanin' at Midnight: The Life of Howlin' Wolf.". Visit
for more info and some great pictures too! Mark also
was a consultant on "The
Howlin' Wolf Story - The Secret History of Rock & Roll ".
The DVD has amazing live footage of Wolf (including Shindig), interviews
with Mark, Hubert Sumlin, and more! Both "Moanin'
at Midnight: The Life of Howlin' Wolf." and "The
Howlin' Wolf Story - The Secret History of Rock & Roll " are