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.

Keb’ Mo’ – He’s Mo’ than Just a Bluesman

The name may sound a bit unorthodox to the uninitiated, but Keb’ Mo’ (born Kevin Moore) is a household name in the modern blues scene.  Though he was born well after the heyday of many great Delta blues musicians, the roots of Keb’ Mo’s sound dates back to a simpler time in American blues history, while incorporating other, more modern genres seamlessly into his music.  A late bloomer of sorts, Keb’ Mo’ got his big break in the mid-‘90s, when he was in his early 40s, proving that it’s never too late to become a success in the music industry.

The musician who would later be known as Keb’ Mo’ was born in Los Angeles, California, on October 3, 1951.  Despite being quite skillful on the guitar as a young man, Kevin Moore, as he was then known, got his start as a calypso bassist and steel drummer.  After a few collaborations with violinist Papa John Creach of Jefferson Airplane fame, Moore released a heavily pop and R&B-flavored debut album, Rainmaker, in 1980, using his birth name.  It would be fourteen years before the world would hear of Kevin Moore again – in 1994, he had a new, snappy stage name and a self-titled release Keb’ Mo’ .  Unlike his 1980 debut, this had a distinct Delta blues flavor and even included two remakes of Robert Johnson originals, “Kindhearted Woman Blues” and “Come on in My Kitchen.”  His next album under the new moniker, Just like You, was released in 1996 and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.   Despite being 45 at the time, Keb’ Mo’s midlife was anything but a crisis.  He was the blues scene’s newest superstar, and the best would be yet to come.

The critically-acclaimed Slow Down in 1998 and Keep it Simple in 2004 would also win Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammys for Keb’ Mo’ the year after their release.  In between those two releases, Keb’ Mo’ starred as the legend himself, Robert Johnson, in a 1998 documentary called Can’t You Hear the Wind Now?  He made several recurring appearances on Touched by an Angel.  There were no awards in 2000, but Keb’ Mo’ recorded two albums that year – The Door and Big Wide Grin.   The latter, which was released in 2001, was mostly a covers album, featuring new renditions of several ‘70s rock and R&B classics such as Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair.”

After 2006’s Suitcase, a five-year lull followed with no new studio albums recorded.  A semi-live, semi-studio album, Live and Mo’ was released in 2009.  But the real follow-up to Suitcase came last year via The Reflection, which many feel is a poppier departure from Keb’ Mo’s usual sound.  Nonetheless, The Reflection got a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album this year, losing out to the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator. 

To this day, Keb’ Mo’ remains a force to be reckoned with as a modern-day bluesman.  His sound has certainly evolved through the years to the point it’s debatable to call him a pure blues musician. Still, the blues foundation is there, as it has always been since that inauspicious 1980 debut.