©2000 Sandy G. Schoenfeld
www.howlingwolfphotos.com

Chester Arthur Burnett has probably had more impact worldwide than the 19th-century American president after whom he was named. With a musical influence that extends from the rockabilly singers of the 1950s and the classic rock stars of the 1960s to the grunge groups of the 1990s and the punk-blues bands of the 21st century, plus a legion of imitators to rival Elvis’s, he was one of the greatest and most influential blues singers ever.

Chester Burnett was born to Leon “Dock” Burnett and Gertrude Jones on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, a tiny railroad stop between Aberdeen and West Point in the Mississippi hill country, many miles away from the Delta.  Fascinated by music as a boy, he would often beat on pans with a stick and imitate the whistle of the railroad trains that ran nearby. He also sang in the choir at the White Station Baptist church, where Will Young, his stern, unforgiving great-uncle preached. When his parents separated, his father moved to the Delta, and his mother left Chester with his uncle Will, who treated him harshly. One childhood friend said Will Young was “the meanest man between here and hell.

Wolf’s relationship with his mother was also troubled. Gertrude spent much of her adult life as a street singer, eking out a living by selling hand-written gospel songs for pennies to passersby. She disowned her son Chester, claiming he played “the Devil’s music.” Wolf’s wariness can be traced to his bleak childhood. 

Dockery Plantation, near Ruleville, MS

former White Station train station

Grave of Charley Patton

When he was 13, Chester ran away from Will Young to the Delta to rejoin his father, half-sister, and step-siblings, who lived on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville. There, Chester became fascinated by local blues musicians, especially the Delta’s first great blues star, Charley Patton, who lived on the nearby Dockery Plantation. When his father bought him his first guitar in January 1928, he convinced Patton to give him guitar lessons. He later took impromptu harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), who was romancing his step-sister, Mary. He learned to sing by listening to records by his idols “Blind” Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, and Blind Blake. He even affected the clothes and look of some of his musical idols. For awhile, he played music while wearing tiny wire-rim glasses and a dark suit like the only known photo of Lemon Jefferson. And  when he wasn’t working on his father’s farm, he traveled the Delta with other musicians such as Sonnyboy, Robert Johnson, Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown.

From the start, Chester’s voice was startling—huge and raw like Charlie Patton’s, and even more powerful. He learned to play guitar and blues harp simultaneously, using a rack-mounted harp. His stage presence was absolutely feral, exaggerated by his physical size—he stood 6′ 3″ tall, weighed 275 lbs late in life, and wore size 16 shoes. John Shines, who also traveled with Robert Johnson, said, “I was afraid of the Wolf, like you would be of some wild animal….It was the SOUND he was giving off!”

Drafted in 1941, Wolf went into the Army Signal Corps. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and was discharged from the Army, and soon moved with his girlfriend to a house in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1945 his girlfriend also suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Wolf left Tennessee and returned to playing music, and helping his father on his farm during the spring and fall. The rest of the year, Wolf was traveling through the South, playing with Delta bluesman such as Son House and Willie Brown.

In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson. He also got a spot on radio station KWEM, playing blues and endorsing farm gear.

Wolf and friends in Chicago club, early 1950s

In 1951, Wolf came to the attention of a young Memphis record producer, Sam Phillips, who took him into the studio and recorded “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years,” and leased them to Chess Records. Released in 1952, they made it to the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B charts. Wolf cut other songs that Phillips farmed out both to Chess and RPM. Chess eventually won the fight for Wolf, who moved to Chicago in 1953 and called the city home for the rest of his life.

Phillips, who certainly recognized musical talent (he later “discovered” Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Rich), said that Wolf was his greatest discovery and losing Wolf to Chicago was his biggest career disappointment. 

“Chester Burnett had such a soulful sound that even though his words were always good blues words, that man didn’t have to say a sound. Just like his song ‘Moanin’ at Midnight.’…When it came out, it was as if everything just stopped, everything that was going on. Time stopped. Everything stopped. And you heard the Wolf.


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“Had the young people truly got to hear him more, had he played on more programs listened to young people, who knows? Had this guy gotten that break, the kids would have absolutely gone crazy. He would have been one of the all-time music heroes. I mean that.”

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As it was, Wolf wrote and recorded songs for Chess that became blues standards: “Smokestack Lightning,” “Killing Floor,” and many others. Chess songwriter Willie Dixon also wrote classic blues songs for Wolf such as “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Evil,” “Back Door Man,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.”

Wolf’s great rival for Chicago blues supremacy was his sometime friend, Muddy Waters. Their rivalry continued through the 1960s, aggravated by Waters’ temporary theft of Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. Like Waters, Wolf was an ambitious man. Their competition, though friendlier than most fans thought, forced both to struggle to be the best in blues.

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Jimmy Rogers

Several musicians who played with both Muddy and Wolf say Wolf was a more professional band leader. Wolf paid his people on time and withheld unemployment insurance and even Social Security, which some of his band members are drawing today. Wolf also stood up for his band and wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Jimmy Rogers, who played for years in Muddy’s band, said, “Wolf was better at managing a bunch of people than Muddy or anybody else. Muddy would go along with the Chess company. [But] Wolf would speak up for himself.”

 

 

Wolf at Anne Arbor Blues Festival, 1972

In his later years, Wolf continued to perform with a manic intensity that would’ve exhausted a man half his age, often in small clubs that other well-known bluesmen had already abandoned. Wolf said simply, “I sing for the people.”

In 1964, Wolf also married his long-time sweetheart, Lillie Handley, whom he had met in 1957 at Silvio’s nightclub in Chicago. Wolf called Lillie “a flower from the first day I met her,” and he doted on her two daughters, Bettye Jean and Barbra. Despite his wild antics onstage, Wolf was a responsible, middle-class family man offstage—honest, hardworking, and upstanding to a fault. He hunted and fished, owned farmland in Arkansas, volunteered with the local fire department, and was a proud member of the local chapter of the Masons.

Wolf’s collaborator on many of his greatest songs was guitar wizard Hubert Sumlin, who played electric guitar with his bare fingers instead of using a pick. Hubert’s eccentric, slashing style made him a favorite of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, and many other guitarists from the 1960s onward.

Wolf’s distinctive vocal style and rough-hewn approach to the blues can also be heard of Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, and Chuck E. Weiss (of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Wolf also received an Honorary Degree from Columbia College in Chicago.

During the 1960s, Wolf and Hubert continued to record sizzling blues that anticipated blues-rock—classic songs such as “Commit a Crime,” “Hidden Charms,” and “Love Me, Darlin’” In 1964, he toured Europe, including the U.K. and even Eastern Europe, with the American Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the American television show “Shindig” with the Rolling Stones. In 1970 he recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in England with Eric Clapton, members of the Rolling Stones, and other British rock stars. It was his best-selling album, reaching #79 on the pop charts.

Wolf at Anne Arbor Blues Festival, 1972

 

Not bad for a 60-year-old man—a very ill one. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Wolf suffered several heart attacks, and his kidneys began to fail him. For the rest of his life, he received dialysis treatments every three days, administered by Lillie. Despite his failing health, Howlin’ Wolf stoically continued to record and perform. In 1972 he recorded a live album at a Chicago club, “Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited.” In 1973, he cut his last studio album, “Back Door Wolf” which included the incendiary “Coon on the Moon,” the autobiographical “Moving,” and “Can’t Stay Here,” which harked back to Charley Patton.

He was also slowed down for much of the Seventies due to internal injuries suffered in an automobile accident.

 

 

Wolf at the Chicago Amphitheater, 1975

Wolf’s last performance was in November 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheater. On a bill with B.B. King, Albert King, O. V. Wright, Luther Allison, and many other great bluesmen, Wolf gave a heroic performance, rising almost literally from his deathbed to recreate many of his old songs and performing some of his old antics such as crawling across the stage during the song “Crawling King Snake.” The crowd went wild and gave him a five-minute standing ovation. When he got offstage, a team of paramedics where called in to revive him. Two months later he died in Chicago during an operation for a brain tumor. He was buried in Hines, IL.

Click to see a larger image of Wolf's grave.

Wolf was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf. H As one blues critic put it, “If you want to know what stage presence is, just point at Howlin’ Wolf and divide by ten!”

 

 


 

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