No one in the world ever sang the blues with the pure, primal power of Chester Arthur Burnett, The Howlin’ Wolf.
And the world took notice.
He came out of the Delta to become a pioneer of postwar electric blues, in a career that took him from Mississippi cotton fields to West Memphis jukes, and on up the blues highway to Chicago’s inner-city clubs. His classic sides for Chess Records led to international fame, and, while never compromising his deep Delta blues, the big man with the bigger sound appeared on national network TV and performed in theaters and stadiums all over the world.
Born June 10, 1910 and raised on the outskirts of West Point, Mississippi near Dockery’s Plantation, young Chester grew up learning to farm, chopping cotton and plowing with mules. Tall and powerfully built, his early nicknames included “Bull Cow” and “Big Foot Chester.” Options were limited for a young black man in the Delta in the 1930s, and the youngster’s natural strength and serious disposition pointed him to a life as a sharecropper, until he came under the spell of the great Charley Patton, who regularly played at Dockery’s general store. Patton’s hoarse, impassioned shout and driving, trance-inducing guitar hit him like a bolt of smokestack lightning. Howlin’ Wolf was born.
I liked his sound,” Burnett recalled in a 1968 interview. “So I got him to show me a few chords. Every night that I’d get off work I’d go off to his house and he’d learn me how to pick the guitar.” He got harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Rice Miller, who had married his half-sister Mary.
Burnett kept his day job, working his crop during the day to support his family, but was soon making extra money playing with Sonny Boy, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Lockwood’s stepfather Robert Johnson.
Drafted into the army during World War II, Burnett was discharged without seeing any combat. Like other black G.I.s, however, he came home with dreams that didn’t include chopping cotton.
Burnett headed north to West Memphis, Memphis’ tougher, more countrified little sister. After the end of Prohibition, alcohol was pouring in West Memphis and by 1935 its liquor and gambling joints had earned the city the nickname, “Little Las Vegas.”
As Howlin’ Wolf, he became a hit in the city’s notorious Eighth Street District, playing clubs like the Little Brown Jug. It was there that he honed his sound - blues stripped to its essence, sung in a hoarse, booming voice at once seductive and threatening. In Wolf’s hands, the harmonica was more percussive than melodic, producing short, stabbing riffs. His raw sound, combined with his powerful stage presence, made him the top act in the area. “He was very, very unique,” Rufus Thomas recalled years later. He remembered Wolf playing Club Paradise in Memphis, outdrawing even Ray Charles., “People were hanging out of every hole, every crack. They were there to see Howlin’ Wolf.”
Wolf ran his band with military toughness, even forbidding drinking, rare in a blues band. He was soon expanding his audience over West Memphis’ KWEM. From there, it was just a bridge away from Beale Street and a little further up the road to 706 Union, where Howlin’ Wolf made his first recordings under the watchful eye of Sam Phillips in May 1951. Phillips recorded Wolf for Julius and Lester Bihari’s Los Angeles-based RPM Records and Chess Records in Chicago. It was early in Phillips’ studio career, which would include Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Little Junior Parker, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, and dozens of the most influential, dynamic and innovative musicians of all time. But whenever Phillips was asked who his favorite was, he had one answer. Wolf was and is, probably the most exciting person to record in the studio of any person I ever recorded, black or white… It was just his soul coming out his mouth.” His first sessions at Memphis Recording Service produced the double-sided hit, “How Many More Years” /”Moanin’ at Midnight” which charted on the national R&B charts at No. 4 and No. 10, respectively. The latter codified the Howlin’ Wolf sound, pointing to the future as well as back to Dockery’s Plantation. It was a one-chord stomp that resembled something that Charley Patton might have beaten out of his National steel, but with Wolf leading his electric band, it became something else -- otherworldly, wordless howls and moans and throbbing harmonica.
Wolf signed with Chess Records in 1952 and unlike the thousands of poor Southern blacks moving north hoping to find better jobs and less segregation, he moved to Chicago late that year, proudly driving a brand-new car with $4,000 in his pocket. Despite his new urban environment, his music never strayed far from the Delta. At Chess, Burnett was part of the Greatest Generation of Chicago bluesmen: Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood, Buddy Guy and more, all of them displaced Southerners.
In 1956, he was back on the national R&B charts with his signature, “Smokestack Lightning.” With its raw, repeated guitar riff over a single chord, the song’s elemental power remains undiminished almost 60 years later. Even as “Smokestack Lightning” was in the R&B top 10, Wolf was facing competition from a new generation of younger, urban singers like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and James Brown. But Wolf never changed. With songwriter Willie Dixon providing such classics as “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Little Red Rooster,” Wolf kept recording his electrified and electrifying Delta blues, filling jukeboxes and radio playlists and packing clubs from Chicago down through the Southern Chittlin circuit. His consistent sound included, from 1954 until his death in 1976, lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, a Greenwood native who’d met Wolf as a boy.
But tastes were changing, and when much of the African-American audience left him in the early ‘60s, Wolf found new fans in the folk movement, playing venues like the Newport Folk Festival as well as coffeehouses and folk clubs. On the other side of the Atlantic, young blues-crazed Brits were listening to those Chess records, brought back to the UK by merchant seamen. One of those treasured imports was 1962’s Howling Wolf, usually called “The Rocking Chair Album” for its oddly generic cover of a chair and a plywood acoustic guitar. There was nothing generic about the music, as Wolf’s second LP featured “Back Door Man,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Red Rooster,” “Shake For Me” and eight other classics.
His fans included The Rolling Stones, who gave Howlin’ Wolf his widest exposure in the US in 1965 on TV’s Shindig, when they insisted he appear on the episode featuring the band. In 1970, Wolf recorded London Sessions, featuring the Stones rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman, drummer Charlie Watts and pianist Ian Stewart, along with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. By then, Wolf was nearing 60, and while he was still playing the southern juke circuit along with rock clubs, he was slowing down. He made his final Chess album in 1973, Back Door Wolf, and died in 1976 of kidney disease.
His honors and awards include membership in both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Rolling Stone lists him as No. 51 of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” “Smokestack Lightning” is a 1999 inductee to The GRAMMY Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Howlin’ Wolf commemorative stamp at ceremonies in Greenville, Miss. His albums continue to be repackaged and in 2012, Smokestack Lightning: Complete Chess Masters 1951-60 won Best Historical Album, Wolf’s ninth Blues Music Award.