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Howlin' Wolf

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Title: Howlin' Wolf  
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Subject: Killing Floor (Howlin' Wolf song), Smokestack Lightning, Spoonful, Wang Dang Doodle, Willie Dixon
Collection: 1910 Births, 1976 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Singers, African-American Guitarists, African-American Singers, African-American Songwriters, American Blues Guitarists, American Blues Musicians, American Male Singers, Blues Hall of Fame Inductees, Blues Musicians from Mississippi, Chess Records Artists, Chicago Blues Musicians, People from Clay County, Mississippi, People from Memphis, Tennessee, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, Rpm Records (United States) Artists, Songwriters from Mississippi
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Howlin' Wolf

Howlin' Wolf
Burnett performing in 1972
Background information
Birth name Chester Arthur Burnett
Born (1910-06-10)June 10, 1910
White Station, Mississippi
Died January 10, 1976(1976-01-10) (aged 65)
Hines, Illinois
Genres Chicago blues
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • harmonica
Years active 1940s–1976
Website Howlin' Wolf Foundation

Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howlin' Wolf, was an African-American Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player, from Mississippi. With a booming voice and looming physical presence, he is one of the best-known Chicago blues artists. Musician and critic Cub Koda noted, "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] producer Sam Phillips added "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'".[2] Several of his songs, such as "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful" have become blues and blues rock standards. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 51 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".[3]


  • Early life 1
  • Musical career 2
    • 1930s and 1940s 2.1
    • 1950s 2.2
    • 1960s and 1970s 2.3
  • Personal life 3
  • Death 4
  • Selective awards and recognitions 5
    • Grammy Hall of Fame 5.1
    • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 5.2
    • The Blues Foundation Awards 5.3
    • Honors and Inductions 5.4
    • Howlin' Wolf Foundation 5.5
  • Discography 6
    • Albums 6.1
  • Notes 7
  • References 8

Early life

Howlin' Wolf was born on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi, near West Point. He was named Chester Arthur Burnett, after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States. His physique garnered him the nicknames of Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow as a young man: he was 6 feet 3 inches (191 cm) tall and often weighed close to 275 pounds (125 kg). He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf: "I got that from my grandfather", who would often tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved then the "howling wolves would get him". Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.[4]

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 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 see his mother in his home town and was driven to tears when she rebuffed him: she refused to take money offered by him, saying it was from his playing of the "Devil's music".

Musical career

1930s and 1940s

In 1930, Burnett met Charlie Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Mississippi 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").[5] 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".[5] 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.[6]

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 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', so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine". [7] His harmonica playing was modeled after that of 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. By the end of the decade, he was a fixture in clubs with a harmonica and a very early electric guitar. On April 9, 1941, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several bases around the country. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, Burnett was discharged on November 3, 1943. He returned to his family, who had recently moved near to West Memphis, Arkansas, and helped with the farming while also 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. Radio station KWEM in West Memphis began broadcasting his live performances and he occasionally sat in with Williamson on KFFA in Helena.


In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded several songs by Howlin' Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service.[8] He quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. His first record singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: "How Many More Years" with "Moaning at Midnight" by Chess Records and "Riding in the Moonlight" backed with "Moaning at Midnight" by RPM Records. Later, Leonard Chess was able to secure his contract and Howlin' Wolf relocated to Chicago in 1952.[8] There he assembled a new band and recruited 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 understated solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. The line-up of the Howlin' Wolf band changed 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 Robinson, and Buddy Guy among others. Burnett was able to attract some of the best musicians available due to his policy, somewhat unique among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, withholding unemployment insurance and even Social Security contributions.[9] With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late 1950s, 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 five songs appear on the Billboard national R&B charts: "Moanin' at Midnight", "How Many More Years", "Who Will Be Next", "Smokestack Lightning", and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)".[10] In 1959, his first LP, Moanin' in the Moonlight, was released, although per standard practice in that era, it was merely a collection of previously released singles.

1960s and 1970s

In the early 1960s, Howlin' Wolf recorded several songs that became his most famous despite receiving no radio play. These include "Wang Dang Doodle", "Back Door Man", "Spoonful", "The Red Rooster" (later known as "Little Red Rooster"), "I Ain't Superstitious", "Goin' Down Slow", and "Killing Floor". Many of these songs were written by bassist and Chess arranger Willie Dixon; later, several found their way into the repertoires of British and American rock groups, who further popularized them. In 1962, his second compilation album, titled Howlin' Wolf (often called "The Rocking Chair album"), was released.

During the counterculture movement in the late 1960s, black blues musicians suddenly found a new audience among white youths and Howlin' Wolf was among the first to capitalize on it. He toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the popular music variety television program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose recording of "Little Red Rooster" reached number one in the UK in 1964. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Howlin' Wolf recorded albums with others, including The Super Super Blues Band with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, The Howlin' Wolf Album with session musicians, and The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, accompanied by British rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. His last album for Chess was 1973's The Back Door Wolf.

The Howlin' Wolf Album had a somewhat controversial album cover which contained a solid white background with large black letters proclaiming "This is Howlin' Wolf's new album. He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either." This may have contributed to poor sales of the LP and Chess co-founder Leonard Chess acknowledged that the cover was a poor idea, saying "I guess negativity isn't a good way to sell records. Who wants to hear that a musician doesn't like his own music?"

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions proved more successful than its predecessor and, like rival bluesman Muddy Waters's album Electric Mud, proved more successful with British audiences than America's.

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 $4000 in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time. Although functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a General Educational Development (GED) diploma, 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 stepdaughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.

Burnett's health began declining in the late 1960s. He experienced several heart attacks and suffered bruised kidneys in a 1970 car accident. Concerned for his health, bandleader Eddie Shaw limited him to a mere six songs per concert.


At the start of 1976, Burnett checked into the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois for kidney surgery, but died of complications from the procedure on January 10, 1976, and was buried in Oakridge Cemetery, outside Chicago, in a plot in Section 18, on the east side of the road. His gravestone has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.[11]

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 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance".[12]

Howlin' Wolf Grammy Award History
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 in the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.[13]

Year Recorded Title
1956 Smokestack Lightning
1960 Spoonful
1961 The Red Rooster

The Blues Foundation Awards

Howlin' Wolf: Blues Music Awards[14]
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 US Post Office issued a Howlin' Wolf 29-cent 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
2012 Memphis Music Hall of Fame inducted Inaugural Class

Howlin' Wolf Foundation

The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a non-profit corporation organized under American tax code section 501(c)(3), has been established by Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend Howlin' Wolf's legacy. 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.[15]




  1. ^  
  2. ^ The Howlin' Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock & Roll.
  3. ^ "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Howlin' Wolf".  
  4. ^ Oliver 1969, p. 150.
  5. ^ a b Segrest 2004, p. 19.
  6. ^ Segrest 2004, p. 20.
  7. ^ Barry Gifford, "Couldn't Do No Yodeling, so I Turned to Howlin'." Rolling Stone, August 24, 1968.
  8. ^ a b Humphrey 2007.
  9. ^ Hoffman 2012.
  10. ^ Whitburn 1988, pp. 197–198.
  11. ^ Howlin' Wolf at Find a Grave
  12. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards".  
  13. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights.  
  14. ^ "Awards Search". The  
  15. ^ "Mission & Goal". Howlin' Wolf Foundation. The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, Inc. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 


  • Hoffman, Mark (July 18, 2012). "Howlin' Wolf Biography, Part 2". Howlin' Wolf site. Howlin' Wolf Productions. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  • Humphrey, Mark (2007).  
  • Segrest, James; Hoffman, Mark (2004). Moanin' at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf. Pantheon Books.  
  • Don McGlynn (2003).  
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