“We’re talking about the life of a human being, how they live.” Howlin’ Wolf, 1966
Of all the Bluesmen that I have listened to and have studied for 54 plus years, Howlin’ Wolf remains my favorite. Wolf’s music is broad based, seemingly simple but is also futuristic. His music is part of the foundation of America’s musical past and is a living component of it’s future.
I wrote about seeing Howlin’ Wolf for the first time in the June 2019 Politichicks article, The Blues and The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones brought Wolf on as their guest on the ABC music program, Shindig, on May 20, 1965. I watched this tv program with my Father and Mother. I was seven.
Wolf was literally bigger than life. He looked to be around 6 foot three. Later on, I found out that he reportedly weighed close to 300 pounds and wore size 16 shoes. The Rolling Stones and the Shindig dancers sat around Wolf, like small, awestruck children. Howlin’ Wolf sang and played harmonica live. He was backed by the Shindog House band. They play-synced behind him to a pre-recorded backing track.
The band included former Ricky Nelson/future Elvis Presley guitarist, James Burton, and keyboard luminary, Billy Preston. Wolf was singing a classic from his 1950s period, “How Many More Years.” As his massive face filled the screen, my Father mentioned that Howlin’ Wolf had played in clubs near his childhood home in Arkansas.
I was astounded, a truly impressionable moment. Howlin’ Wolf was an adult dose of passion in song. His stage movements that night were amazing. Some of which were possibly a seminal influence on Elvis Presley’s own stage movements. It was the first time that I met the Blues, to quote Bluesman Buddy Guy. Wolf was a listening option that was substantive. He was beyond the pop songs of the day. The impression that Wolf made upon me, in 1965, continues to this day in my continued listening of Deep Blues.
I started collecting Blues albums by the time I was 13, including my first Howlin’ Wolf albums. A particular treasure remains with the 1972 seminal collection titled “Chester Burnett AKA Howlin’ Wolf.” Chester Burnett was Wolf’s given name, but more on that later. This album, in it’s current various forms, is a great cross section of Wolf’s recordings for Sun and Chess records.
I saw Wolf perform once at the Ann Arbor Blues festival in 1972. I was 15. He lived up to his stage name and prowled the stage like a wolf. He was the most involved in the depth of a song of any Blues singer I have ever seen, before or since. His guitarist Hubert Sumlin was and remains a continued source of inspiration with his slippery-like-an-eel guitar playing. There was no pretense in Wolf’s performance. His Band was a dynamic and tight ensemble.
As my teenage years progressed, I grew to understand what a great Blues singer Howlin’ Wolf was. He had a powerful voice. His harmonica playing and occasional slide guitar playing reflected the direct force of his personality and his Delta musical roots.
I was 18 when I managed to obtain Howlin Wolf’s home phone number. Just before Halloween 1975, if I remember correctly, I called the Wolf. The beginning of the conversation went something like this:
(Unmistakable Wolf voice): Hello?
Me: Hello, is this Chester Burnett, the Howlin’ Wolf?
Wolf: Yes it is, what can I do for you young man?
Well, I almost lost the plot there. I tried not to gush, but I had to tell him how much his music meant to me and that he was my favorite Blues singer. Looking back now, I realize that I must have caught him at a comfortable moment. Wolf was reputed to be a difficult man. But I found him to be an incredibly kind, gracious and good man. We talked for more than a half an hour.
He asked about my family. When he discovered my dad had passed early, he seemed to shift gears; he became almost fatherly in his instruction. As if he was trying to pass on life lessons as well as Blues lessons. We talked about everything from the Blues of the Delta to how to be decent to people.
In the course of the conversation, I respectfully asked if I could visit him sometime, if I was in Chicago.
He said, “Only if you are willing to put up with me.” Additionally Wolf said, “Maybe we can make some space for you here at the house.” I remember thinking it doesn’t get much better than this.
So that was in October 1975. I immediately started planning a trip to Chicago for the Spring of 1976. Tragically, Howlin’ Wolf died of complications from Brain cancer on January 10, 1976 at the age of 65. But I will always cherish the greatness, generosity and kindness of the man that was framed within that one conversation.
The story of Howlin’ Wolf is one of where someone has a rough childhood and creates great art out of that soul pain. Wolf’s story is one of a hard won moral compass framed by great Blues.
Howlin’ Wolf was born on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. This area is known as the Mississippi Hill Country.
Wolf was named after the twenty-first President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. In 1913, in a similar manner, McKinley Morganfield was named after the twenty fifth President of the United States, William McKinley. Morganfield grew up to join Wolf as that fellow titan of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters.
Interestingly enough, both of the above referenced Presidents were Republicans. This was a period of time before the political indoctrination of Black and White Americans. Both Arthur and McKinley fought against slavery and for the rights of Black Americans. So Wolf and Muddy received noble first names by their respective parents.
Chester’s parents were Dock and Gertrude Burnett. Every Spring Dock traveled down to the Delta to work as a farm laborer. Dock, by all accounts, was a warm and friendly man. Very hard working. Chester’s Mother, Gertrude, came from a Choctaw heritage. By many reports Gertrude was a religious zealot. She was allegedly demonstrating signs of an undiagnosed mental illness throughout her life. At times she was prone to talking and arguing with herself while walking the streets of White Station.
Dock and Gertrude broke up around Chester’s first birthday. From that point until around the age of 10, Chester was raised by his Mother and his maternal Grandparents.
As Chester would play with his Mother’s chickens his Grandpa Jones teased Chester that he was going to “put the Wolf on him.” The nickname stuck with Chester all his life, partly leading to the stage name, Howlin’ Wolf.
When Chester was 10, his Mother threw him out of their home. He alleged years later that it was because he would not work in the fields on the plantation, where they were sharecroppers for fifteen cents a day. He took a stormy refuge with his father’s mother’s brother, Will Young. Young abused the adolescent Chester terribly at his White Station farm, both physically and psychologically. Eventually Chester, now known only as Wolf, ran away from his Uncle’s cruelty.
At the age of 13, Wolf sought out his Father, Dock, in the Delta. Dock was sharecropping on the Young and Morrow plantation. By this point his Father had gotten remarried to a lovely woman, Ivory Crowley. Ivory welcomed Wolf into her home like he was her own son. However, the mistreatment Wolf suffered at the hands of his Mother and his Uncle scarred him for the rest of his life. The trauma helped to make him a great Bluesman, but it also made him abjectly unhappy at various times in his life. Those early childhood scars rarely heal fully.
By the time he was 18, his Father brought him his first good guitar. He also started playing harmonica. He continued to help his Father on his farm, plowing and baling hay among other farm chores, sometimes using as many as four mules at a time when plowing. Wolf was physically more developed and stronger than most of his contemporaries.
On the nearby Dockery plantation, there lived the King of the Delta Blues, Charley Patton. He resided at Dockery as the rascal in residence, eating out of the plantation cook’s kitchen.
Patton took an interest in Chester who already had a commanding voice. He taught Wolf how to accompany his great voice with a rhythmic guitar style. This invaluable instruction led to Wolf’s playing around the Delta. He would travel and perform with other Delta Blues figures such as Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy briefly married Wolf’s sister, Mary, and gave him master level classes in Blues harmonica. These musical legends played the juke joints of the Cotton Belt states.
When Wolf was almost 31 years old, he entered the Army. He did his basic training at Camp J.T. Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wolf claimed that he was forced to enlist in the Army as his music kept him from working on the plantations. He was assigned to kitchen duty at Camp Blanding in Jacksonville, Florida.
The army’s strict discipline affected Wolf terribly. He served in the Army in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was transferred through Fort Lawton in Seattle, eventually ending up at Camp Murray, in Tacoma, Washington. He started suffering from extreme nervousness and dizzy spells. Even though the Army referred to his character as “excellent” he was not meant for the life of an army soldier. He was given an honorable discharge in November 1943.
He returned to the South, playing music and occasionally helping his Father with farming. This way of life continued for him for several years. By 1948, Howlin’ Wolf was performing by his stage name in the West Memphis, Arkansas area.
Initially he worked in a factory, but the lively West Memphis club scene, also known as West Helena, captivated Wolf’s attention. His big voice and feral-like stage presence made him a popular club attraction. At times, he would get down on all fours and “stalk” the audience, like a wolf.
By this point,Wolf was playing music pretty much full time. In 1949 he landed a spot on the KWEM radio station in West Helena. He had formed a band that included future luminaries of the Blues, Little Junior Parker and Matt “Guitar” Murphy (Blues Brothers), among others.
Wolf was given an afternoon spot on the KWEM line-up. He performed live with his band while promoting his local appearances and read farm reports as part of his show. His radio show was widely popular. He soon came to the attention of Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Studio and the (future) record label, Sun records. By this point Wolf had been using musicians like guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare, both Fathers of the Power Chord, and drummer Willie Steele, among others. Wolf was also mentoring a young Greenwood Mississippi guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who would figure greatly in Wolf’s future.
Sam Phillips, a legendary figure in American music, heard Wolf’s broadcasts on KWEM and was astounded by his voice. Howling Wolf came by his voice naturally. He had suffered from constant bouts of tonsillitis which led to a rough edge. Yet that rough edge was framed by an unearthly falsetto, spooky and atmospheric.
Phillips had recorded Memphis based Blues singers like B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Walter Horton, James Cotton and Pat Hare, among other notables. Sam Phillips is most famous in the American cultural imagination for his seminal recordings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. All on the Sun record label. But Phillips’s professional career started with the recording of the area’s great Bluesmen.
With Blues singers like Wolf, Phillips was initially leasing the masters to record labels like Chess Records in Chicago, and Modern Records in Los Angeles. Wolf’s stunning recordings by Phillips started a bidding war between Chess and Modern so Wolf briefly had releases on both labels. Eventually a compromise was met and Chess signed Howlin’ Wolf to a record contract and in turn Modern also placed Memphis Bluesman, Roscoe Gordon, under contract.
The recordings Howlin’ Wolf did for Sam Phillips were in 1951. This was the beginning of a 20+ year recording career. When Wolf moved from Memphis to Chicago, he found a home base audience that was open to his large talents. Wolf was a very direct songwriter. The Chess production team also teamed him up with songwriter Willie Dixon, leading to songs of great lyrical imagery such as “Spoonful and Backdoor Man.”
When he left the South as his home base, he promised the young guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, a spot in his Chicago Blues band. Thus was created one of the great partnerships in the history of the Blues.
Because of Wolf’s guidance and Father-like relationship with him, Hubert Sumlin became one of the Blues’ greatest guitarists. He was the heart and hands connected to Wolf’s voice. Hubert in turn was a huge influence on Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, and so many others.
The recordings Wolf made for Chess Records are some of the greatest and most varied in the legacy of the Blues. The songs that Wolf wrote, interpreted, and performed were a seminal influence on artists as varied as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Taj Mahal, Otis Taylor, Captain Beefheart, Jim Morrison, and Miles Davis, among many others. Some of Wolf’s one chord songs have been hugely influential on genres such as Seattle Grunge and Proto-Rap.
A few important facts about Wolf: He ran his band like a business. He paid his sidemen’s unemployment insurance and took out the appropriate Social Security taxes. Late in life, he went to adult education classes. He even took guitar lessons from famed Chicago session guitarist, Reggie Boyd. Wolf always believed in self improvement and was honorable in his everyday dealings with people.
By 1957, Wolf had been married and divorced once when he met the love of his life, Lillie Handley. Lillie was a widow much younger than he, with two daughters from her first marriage. Their love affair is one of the great stories of the Blues. They eventually married in 1964. They took wonderful care of each other.
Lillie helped to heal some of Wolf’s early childhood trauma. Regrettably, he never reconciled with his Mother. Gertrude always said that her son played the “devil’s music.” She never accepted her son’s chosen profession and their contact was sporadic, at best.
Many of Wolf’s sidemen, such as Eddie Shaw, Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray and Sam Lay, among many, went on to very storied careers of their own. Through the years, all of them spoke of the professionalism that they had learned from Howlin’ Wolf.
By the early 1970s Wolf had suffered several heart attacks. He had a serious automobile accident on New Years morning, 1973. That accident and his problems with hypertension led to his being placed on kidney dialysis up to three times a week. He booked performances near VA hospitals where he could get affordable dialysis treatments because of his veterans benefits. He continued to perform despite his infirmaries.
Howlin’ Wolf was in Chicago and only 65 when he died of brain cancer in 1976. Even at the end, his Mother refused to come to his death bed.
To paraphrase Sun Records Producer Sam Phillips, the music of Howlin’ Wolf is where the Soul of a man never dies. Despite, a hard life, he created a body of work that is unparalleled in the history of the Blues for its passion and its beauty. A noble man. Noble, in spite of this world and also because of it. He remains an important part of my weekly Blues listening.