Chester Arthur Burnett, known as Howlin’ Wolf, was one of the most
influential musicians of the post–World War II era. His electric blues guitar, backing his powerful, howling voice, helped shape rock and roll.
Burnett was born on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, four
miles northeast of West Point, Mississippi, to Leon “Dock” Burnett, a sharecropper,
and Gertrude Jones. His parents separated when he was one year old; his
father moved to the Mississippi Delta to farm, and he and his mother
moved to Monroe County, Mississippi, where she became an eccentric
religious singer who performed and sold self-penned spirituals on the
Burnett got the nickname “Wolf” because his
grandfather would scare the youngster by telling him that the wolf in
the woods would get him if he misbehaved. The rest of the family would
then call him “Wolf” and howl at him.
When he was still a child,
Burnett’s mother sent him away to live with his uncle, who was
particularly hard on him, whipping him with a bullwhip and making him
eat separately from the rest of the family. At age thirteen, he ran away
from home and moved to the Mississippi Delta. He eventually found his
father and his father's new family on a plantation near Ruleville,
Mississippi, and he began working on the plantation.
Charlie Patton, the most popular musician in the Delta, showed him a few
chords on the guitar. In January 1928, Burnett’s father bought him a
guitar, and he began to play regularly, eventually teaming with Patton,
who taught him many tricks of showmanship.
Preferring the life of a
blues musician to the harsh life of sharecropping, Burnett began
wandering the delta regions of Mississippi and Arkansas, playing music
anywhere he could make money. He was a giant of a man, standing over six
feet three inches and weighing some 275 pounds, and he became well
known in the region as a blues performer, not only for his showmanship
but also for his large size and loud, howling voice.
In 1933, the Burnett family left Mississippi and moved to a large Arkansas plantation in Wilson (Mississippi County). In early 1934, they moved to the Nat Phillips Plantation on the St. Francis River approximately fifteen miles north of Parkin (Cross County). Despite his commitment to his music, Burnett faithfully returned each spring to plow his father’s land.
began traveling in Oklahoma and all over the south, but Arkansas
remained his main stomping ground. He learned to play harmonica from
blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson
and added it to his performing arsenal. Along with Williamson, Burnett
also performed in the 1930's alongside Robert Johnson, Son House, Johnny
Shines, Willie Brown, and Robert Jr. Lockwood.
enlisted in the army, for which he was not well suited. After serving
in the army, Burnett returned home to farm on the Phillips Plantation.
Then he went to Penton, Mississippi, to farm for two years, farming by
day and playing music by night. In Penton, he met Katie Mae Johnson, and
they were married on May 3, 1947.
In 1948, Burnett moved to West Memphis (Crittenden County).
He took a job in a factory there, but the area’s blues clubs were the
real draw for him. West Memphis, then a town bustling with blues clubs
and gambling, was at the forefront of the newly amplified blues music,
and Burnett adapted quickly. He assembled a blues band in the area
called the House Rockers and made a commitment to make music his career.
While Muddy Waters was giving birth to electric blues in Chicago,
Illinois, Burnett was doing the same thing in West Memphis.
in 1948, Burnett was performing on local radio station KWEM in West
Memphis (he both produced and sold advertising for his program), where
he attracted the attention of record producer Sam Phillips in Memphis,
Tennessee. Phillips’s recordings of “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many
More Years” were leased to Chess Records and became a double-sided hit,
making Billboard magazine’s R&B top ten.
1951, Burnett signed with the Chess label, and the Chess brothers
convinced him to move to Chicago in the winter of 1952. His wife refused
to follow him, and their marriage, which had been rocky, ended. Upon
arriving in Chicago, Burnett broke into the scene quickly and assembled a
band in the West Memphis style. Among his band members was a young
guitarist from West Memphis, Hubert Sumlin, who would stay with
Burnett for the remainder of Burnett’s career.
In 1954, he recorded “Evil,” his biggest hit to that point, which landed on the Cash Box
magazine Hot Chart. It was also the first of many tunes that Willie
Dixon wrote for Burnett. As his audience grew, he toured more widely,
and in 1955, he played New York’s Apollo Theater. That year he made Cash Box
magazine’s list of the top twenty-five male R&B vocalists. By that
time, only Muddy Waters rivaled his popularity in the blues arena.
In 1956, Burnett recorded his masterpiece work, “Smokestack Lightnin’.” The hit peaked at number eleven on both the Cash Box
Hot Chart and Billboard’s R&B chart. Over the next five years,
Burnett recorded many hits: “I Asked For Water,” “Who’s Been Talking,”
“Sitting on Top of the World,” “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back
Door Man,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “Red
Rooster.” In 1959, Burnett released his first album on Chess, Moaning in the Moonlight, which was followed in January 1962 by Howlin’ Wolf, sometimes referred to as the “Rocking Chair” album. Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone magazine called it “the finest of all Chicago blues albums.”
March 14, 1964, Burnett married Lillie Handley Jones, who was from
Alabama. She was a property owner and a smart money manager, and they
settled in south Chicago. She would remain with him until his death.
later hits included “Tail Dragger” (1962); “Built for Comfort,” “300
Pounds of Heavenly Joy,” “Hidden Charms” (all in 1963); and “Love Me
Darlin’” and “Killing Floor” (both in 1964).
In September 1964, he
traveled to Europe as part of the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival,
touring with such blues artists as Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’
Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Sleepy John Estes. “Smokestack Lightnin’” was
a huge hit in Great Britain, and Burnett commanded headliner status on
Burnett garnered wider exposure through the folk
movement and British Invasion remakes of his classic blues songs. In
1965, he appeared on the ABC TV show Shindig with the Rolling
Stones, who had a number-one hit in England with “Red Rooster.” Over the
next several years, he played the prestigious Newport Folk Festival,
the Berkeley Folk Festival, and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. In that
period, he released the albums Real Folk Blues (1966) and More Real Folk Blues (1967). In 1968, he released Howlin’ Wolf, often referred to as the “electric” Howlin’ Wolf album.
failing health, including a 1969 heart attack, high blood pressure, and
kidney problems, Burnett continued to tour and record. In May 1970, he
went to London, England, and recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions
with such British rock stars as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman,
Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Ringo Starr, and Ian Stewart. It became
the only Howlin’ Wolf album to appear on the Billboard 200, spending
fifteen weeks on the chart and peaking at number nineteen.
In early 1971, Burnett released the album Message to the Young,
which was considered his “psychedelic” record, as well as the nadir of
his recording career. In May 1971, Burnett had a second heart attack,
and doctors discovered that his kidneys were failing. He began to get
hemodialysis treatments and was ordered by doctors to stop performing.
But he would not quit, and three months later, he was the opening night
headliner at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
In early 1972, Burnett cut the live album Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited.
In August 1972, he received an honorary doctorate from Chicago’s
Columbia College. In August 1973, he recorded his final studio album, The Back Door Wolf. In 1975, he was nominated twice for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional or Ethnic Album for Back Door Wolf and London Revisited, a repackaging of the London sessions recorded by both him and Muddy Waters.
January 7, 1976, Burnett was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He underwent
surgery from which he never recovered. He was removed from life support
and died on January 10, 1976. He is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in
Burnett was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
in 1980 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In
1994, the great bluesman was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.