Howlin’ Wolf – The Loudest (and Largest) Man in Chicago Blues History

If he didn’t scare the heck out of you, he’d make a lifelong fan out of you instead.  That’s perhaps the best way to describe the legacy of Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf.  With his imposing size and extremely loud vocal delivery, Howlin’ Wolf was not somebody you would want to trifle with.  At 6’6”, he was tall enough to be a professional basketball player, and at 300 pounds, big enough to play professional football.  But he was a superstar in a totally different field altogether – the Chicago blues scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

Chester Burnett was a product of White Station, Mississippi, where he was born on June 10, 1910 and named after the 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur.  He got his stage name from his grandfather, who would frequently warn him about the “howling wolves” in the wild, in an effort to get him to behave.  At the age of 13, Chester was on his own, having ran away from his abusive uncle – a few years earlier, his own mother threw him out for being lazy.  A deeply religious woman, Gertrude Burnett had a contentious relationship with her son even when he became a successful bluesman – to her, the blues was the sound of Satan.

Howlin’ Wolf got his unique shouting style after several failed attempts to imitate country legend Jimmie Rodgers’ yodeling vocals.  But it was bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sonny Boy Williamson II who served as a greater influence when Wolf started playing professionally.  At the age of 41, after years of criss-crossing the South as an itinerant musician, Howlin’ Wolf was signed to Memphis Recording Service, a recording label owned by one Sam Phillips.  In a few years, this label would become Sun Records and give birth to some of the first and greatest rock and roll recordings ever.

After a brief, moderately successful run in Memphis, Wolf moved to Chicago in 1953.  A year later, Wolf recruited guitarist Hubert Sumlin from the Memphis scene.  Sumlin would become Wolf’s closest co-contributor, playing on songs such as “How Many More Years” and “Smokestack Lightning.”  These two songs gave Wolf his biggest successes to date on the R&B charts, both peaking inside the Billboard R&B Top Ten.    Wolf’s self-titled 1962 album featured the songs “The Red Rooster”, “Spoonful” and “Back Door Man.”  These songs would eventually be covered by the Rolling Stones (as “Little Red Rooster”), Cream and the Doors respectively, firmly certifying Wolf as a big influence on a new generation of largely white rock and roll combos.

Wolf was unique among American bluesmen of his era, as he mostly strayed clear of the usual temptations that prematurely end a musician’s career.  He spent his money wisely, shunning expensive automobiles and other creature comforts in order to provide for his family and sidemen alike.  Still, his health began to fail in the late ‘60s, suffering several heart attacks and damaging his kidneys in an unfortunate car accident.   Wolf died on January 10, 1976, exactly five months shy of his 66th birthday, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois.  Howlin’ Wolf’s music and influence still lives on, and it’s not just through the music of the bands and singers he influenced.  Every year, West Point, Mississippi is home to two tribute events – the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival and Wolf’s Juke Joint Jam.