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Howling Wolf

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Howling Wolf

"Chester Burnett" redirects here. For American football player, see Chester Burnett (American football).
Howlin' Wolf
Performing in 1972.
Background information
Birth name Chester Arthur Burnett
Also known as Howlin' Wolf
Born (1910-06-10)June 10, 1910
White Station, Mississippi, United States
Died January 10, 1976(1976-01-10) (aged 65)
Hines, Illinois, United States
Genres Electric blues, Chicago blues
Occupations Musician, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar, harmonica
Years active 1951–1976
Labels Chess
Associated acts Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon
Website www.howlinwolffoundation.org
Notable instruments
guitar, harmonica

Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howlin' Wolf, was an influential American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player. He was born in West Point, Mississippi in an area now known as White Station.

With a booming voice and looming physical presence, Burnett is commonly ranked among the leading performers in electric blues; musician and critic Cub Koda declared, "no one could match Howlin' Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits."[1] A number of songs written or popularized by Burnett—such as "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful"—have become blues and blues rock standards.

At 6 feet, 6 inches (197 cm) and close to 300 pounds (136 kg), he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s Chicago blues singers. This rough-edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less crude but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs, and Muddy Waters are usually regarded in retrospect as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked, "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him #51 on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".[2]

Early life

Born in White Station, Mississippi, near West Point, he was named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, and was nicknamed Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow in his early years because of his massive size. He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf thus: "I got that from my grandfather [John Jones]". His grandfather would often tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved, the "howling wolves would get him". Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.[3]

According to the documentary film The Howlin' Wolf Story, Burnett's parents broke up when he was young. His very religious mother Gertrude threw him out of the house while he was still a child for refusing to work around the farm; he then moved in with his uncle, Will Young, who treated him badly. When he was 13, he ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles (137 km) barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home within his father's large family. During the peak of his success, he returned from Chicago to his home town to see his mother again, but was driven to tears when she rebuffed him and refused to take any money he offered her, saying it was from his playing the "Devil's music".

Musical career

1930s and 1940s

In 1930, Burnett met Charley Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Delta at the time. He would listen to Patton play nightly from outside a nearby juke joint. There he remembered Patton playing "Pony Blues," "High Water Everywhere," "A Spoonful Blues," and "Banty Rooster Blues". The two became acquainted and soon Patton was teaching him guitar. Burnett recalled that: "The first piece I ever played in my life was ... a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare" (Patton's "Pony Blues").[4] He also learned about showmanship from Patton: "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".[4] Burnett could perform the guitar tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life. He played with Patton often in small Delta communities.[5]

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". Country singer Jimmie Rodgers, who was Burnett's childhood idol, was also an influence. He tried to emulate Rodgers' "blue yodel," but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. "I couldn't do no yodelin'," Barry Gifford quoted him as saying in Rolling Stone, "so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine". His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), who had taught him how to play when Burnett moved to Parkin, Arkansas, in 1933.

During the 1930s, Burnett performed in the South as a solo performer and with a number of blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Brown, Son House and Willie Johnson. On 9 April 1941, at age thirty, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several army bases. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, Burnett was discharged 3 November 1943, during the middle of World War II, without ever being sent overseas. Burnett returned to his family who then living near West Memphis, Arkansas and helped with the farming, while performing as he had done in the 1930s with Floyd Jones and others. In 1948 he formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction" and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, alternating between performing and pitching equipment on his father's farm after his family's move to this area in the same year. Eventually, Sam Phillips discovered him and ended up signing him for Memphis Recording Service in 1951.[6]

1950s

In 1950, Howlin' Wolf cut several tracks at Sun Studio in Memphis. He quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at RPM Records and Leonard Chess's Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' At Midnight" b/w "How Many More Years" on 15 August 1951. Burnett also recorded sides for RPM, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and he settled in Chicago, Illinois c. 1953.[6] Arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year he enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. The line-up of the Howlin' Wolf band would change regularly over the years, employing 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 "Abu Talib" Robinson and Buddy Guy among others. With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late '50s, Sumlin remained 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.

In the 1950s Howlin' Wolf had four songs that qualified as "hits" on the Billboard national R&B charts: "How Many More Years", his first and biggest hit, made it to #4 in 1951;[7] its flip side, "Moanin' at Midnight", made it to #10 the same year; "Smokestack Lightning" charted for three weeks in 1956, peaking at #8; and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" appeared on the charts for one week in 1956, in the #8 position. In 1959, his first album, Moanin' in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.

1960s and 1970s

His 1962 LP Howlin' Wolf, which featured contributions from Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers and Sam Lay among others, is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as "The Rocking Chair album" because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained "Wang Dang Doodle", "Goin' Down Slow", "Spoonful", and "Little Red Rooster" (titled "The Red Rooster" on this album), songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1964 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album. He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who is credited with such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Little Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Evil", "Wang Dang Doodle" (later recorded by Koko Taylor), and others.

In September 1967, he joined forces with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters for The Super Super Blues Band album of Chess blues standards, including "The Red Rooster" and "Spoonful".

In May 1970, Howlin' Wolf traveled to London along with Sumlin, the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp and Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.

Personal life

Unlike many other blues musicians who had left an impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Chester Burnett was always financially successful. Having already achieved a measure of success in Memphis, he described himself as "the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta" to Chicago, which he did, in his own car on the Blues Highway and with four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time. In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as "loose women", to which so many of his peers succumbed. Though functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a General Educational Development (GED), and later to study accounting and other business courses aimed to help his business career.

Burnett met his future wife, Lillie, when she attended one of his performances in a Chicago club. She and her family were urban and educated, and not involved in what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Burnett says he was, he pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. Together they raised Bettye and Barbara, Lillie's two daughters from an earlier relationship.

After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Burnett was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.

Burnett's health declined in the late 1960s through 1970s. He suffered several heart attacks and in 1970 his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident. He died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois on 10 January 1976 from complications of kidney disease and was buried in Oakridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois, in a plot in Section 18, on the east side of the road. His large gravestone, allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton, has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.

Legacy

The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, has been established by his daughter, Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend the legacy of Chester A. Burnett. The foundation mission and goals include the preservation of the blues music genre, scholarships for students to participate in music programs, and support for blues musicians and blues programs. More information can be found at [8] www.howlinwolffoundation.org.

The Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival is held each year in West Point, Mississippi. Wolf's Juke Joint Jam is another annual Howlin' Wolf tribute festival held in West Point. Some of the artists who have played 'Wolf Jam' include Wolf's lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters' back band of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and "Steady Rollin" Bob Margolin, Willie King, Blind Mississippi Morris, Kenny Brown, Burnside Exploration, etc. The festival is held at the 500-acre (2.0 km2) festival grounds known as Waverly Waters Resort.

A popular music venue in New Orleans, Louisiana was named The Howlin' Wolf when it opened in 1988.[9]

Burnett was portrayed by Eamonn Walker in the 2008 motion picture Cadillac Records.

Selective awards and recognitions

Grammy Hall of Fame

A recording of Howlin' Wolf was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Howlin' Wolf Grammy Award History[10]
Year Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1956 Smokestack Lightning Blues (Single) Chess 1999

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.[11]

Year Recorded Title
1956 Smokestack Lightning
1960 Spoonful
1962 The Red Rooster

The Blues Foundation Awards

Howlin' Wolf: Blues Music Awards[12]
Year Category Title Result
2004 Historical Blues Album of the Year The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions Nominated
1995 Reissue Album of the Year Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog Nominated
1992 Vintage or Reissue Blues Album—US or Foreign The Chess Box—Howlin' Wolf Winner
1990 Vintage/Reissue (Foreign) Memphis Days Nominated
1989 Vintage/Reissue Album (US) Cadillac Daddy Nominated
1988 Vintage/Reissue Album (Foreign) Killing Floor: Masterworks Vol. 5 Winner
1987 Vintage/Reissue Album (US) Moanin' in the Moonlight Winner
1981 Vintage or Reissue Album (Foreign) More Real Folk Blues Nominated

Honors and Inductions

On September 17, 1994 the U.S. Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29 cents commemorative postage stamp.

Howlin' Wolf Inductions
Year Category Result Notes
2003 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame Inducted
1991 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted Early Influences
1980 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted

Discography

Notes

References

External links

  • Howlin' Wolf Foundation
  • Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival
  • Biography at HowlinWolf.com
  • Howlin' Wolf complete session discography
  • The Howling or, 100 Years of the Big Bad Wolf (PopMatters Article)
  • Wolf's Juke Joint Jam
  • Howlin' Wolf Gravesite
  • 1980 Blues Foundation Hall of Fame induction
  • Illustrated Howlin' Wolf discography
  • Documentary "Smokestack Lightning: The Legendary Howlin' Wolf"
  • Pop Chronicles (1969).

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