“A lot of peoples holler about ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money, and can’t pay your house rent and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you ain’t got no money you got the blues, because you’re thinking evil. That’s right. Any time you’re thinking evil, you’re thinking about the blues.” – Howlin’ Wolf
Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976) was named after the 21st president. His eventual size – he was purportedly 6’3” and 300 lbs (191 cm and 136 kg) – would result in nicknames like Big Foot Chester & Bull Cow but they had already started calling him “Wolf” by the age of 3.
“My grandfather gave me that name. He used to sit down and tell me tall stories about what the wolf would do. Because I was a bad boy, you know, always in devilment. I’d say ‘Well, what do the wolf do?’ He’d say ‘Howl.’ You know, to scare me, you know, and I’d get mad about this. I didn’t know it would be a great name.”
Born in Mississippi, the list of Delta musicians that helped Wolf on his journey to becoming one of the most recognizable Chicago blues artists is a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Blues:
You can hear Charley Patton in his guitar and Sonny Boy Williamson II in his harmonica, both whom taught him to play their respective instruments and who he performed with regularly. Had his yodelling attempts been successful, you would also hear the influence of popular country singer Jimmie Rogers but “I couldn’t do no yodellin’ so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.” In his early days, he also performed with Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Son House, and Willie Johnson among others while also building his reputation as a solo performer. In this respect, it was perhaps Charley Patton who gave him the greatest gift, teaching him the art of showmanship. Wolf would use the guitar tricks and stage presence he learned from Patton for the rest of his life. And no one did it better.
“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.” – Cub Koda
Following an unsuccessful stint in the army – he was discharged as he found it difficult to adjust to military life – Wolf returned to his family who had relocated to West Memphis, Arkansas. He formed a band which included harmonica player Junior Parker and began live performances that were broadcast by the local radio station. He quickly became a local celebrity. His first records were produced by Ike Turner who did double-duty as the pianist. Initially signed by Sun Records, following a label-war Chess Records eventually secured his contract and Wolf moved north to Chicago. He was initially welcomed by the “King of Chicago Blues” Muddy Waters, but Waters’ increasing fear that Wolf would steal his crown led to a feud that some would say was of practically biblical proportions and others would contend is much overblown and was instead just grudging admiration. Hubert Sumlin, arguably Wolf’s greatest collaborator and a phenomenal guitarist in his own right, tells the tale of Waters’ briefly successful attempts to bribe him mid-show on a set break with a cash offer to triple his weekly wage. When Wolf realized what was happening, he kicked Sumlin off the stage, not even allowing him to finish the night. It was later that evening that Sumlin found out he was leaving immediately on a 40-night tour. He instantly regretted his decision.
Despite Wolf’s reputation for ‘whupping’ musicians who didn’t toe his line, Wolf’s camp was well-organized, he took care of his band, and most musicians considered him the best bandleader in Chicago. Unlike Waters who would go along with the demands the label made, Wolf would speak up for himself and, by extension, his musicians. Where Waters would let James Cotton run his show, only appearing on stage for the last few numbers, Wolf would be out front and, as per Sumlin, “kicking ass” all night long.
Functionally illiterate into his forties, he went to night school to earn his high school diploma, often studying in a corner during intermission. He would later go on to study business and accounting. He also continued to take music lessons, always trying to advance. From the outset, Wolf was financially successful but not financially extravagant. Rather straight-laced, especially for a blues musician, he avoided the ‘dangers’ of alcohol, gambling, and ‘loose’ women.
He met his future wife Lillie at a show. She was urban and educated and from a family that was not involved in the unsavoury world of blues musicians, but Wolf pursued her and won them over. Remaining deeply in love until his death, together they raised her daughters from a former relationship.
Lillie took over Wolf’s professional finances and due to her careful management, Wolf was able to offer his band a decent salary plus unheard of benefits (health and unemployment insurance, union dues, and in Sumlin’s case, Wolf pre-paid for two years of guitar lessons at the Chicago Conservatory of Music). As a result, Wolf generally had his pick of available musicians and he frequently changed players. At points, his band included Buddy Guy and bassist/Chess house songwriter Willie Dixon who was caught in the Waters-Wolf crossfire as they both competed for his best songs. Sumlin finished his tour with Waters but he called Wolf the moment they returned to Chicago to let him know he was quitting and wanted to come back to Wolf’s band. He was welcomed ‘home’ and remained for the rest of Wolf’s career.
(with Hubert Sumlin on guitar)
Wolf was one of the first black musicians to capitalize on the increasing interest of blues among young white youths. In the early ‘60s, he toured Europe which included a television appearance on Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones whose recording of his “Little Red Rooster” had reached number one in the UK in 1964.
Wolf’s health began declining in the late ‘60s. He had several heart attacks and his kidneys were damaged in an auto accident. Complications from kidney disease would eventually led to his death. His gravestone, which has an etched image of a guitar and harmonica, was allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton.
In the end, Waters is generally recognized for having the all-around better band, while Wolf is known for his business savvy and powerful stage presence. His sound was not as polished or ‘city’ – he preferred a “countrified version of morality and mortality. I asked for water, she gave me gasoline.” His voice was the loudest and one of the most recognizable, though rough-edged, of the Chicago blues musicians. Where others would consider a note too raw for the human esophagus, Wolf would literally the crawl on the floor to find it. HIs performances could veer well past suggestive into the downright profane. And Wolf never answered to anyone but himself.
Producer Robert Palmer attended a 1965 performance in Memphis. As he tells it, the curtains opened to reveal the band before Wolf, this huge hulk of a man, sprung onto the stage, lunging for the microphone and captivating the crowd:
“He had the hugest voice I had ever heard — it seemed to fill the hall and get right inside your ears, and when he hummed and moaned in falsetto, every hair on your neck crackled with electricity.
“The thirty minute set went by like an express train, with Wolf switching from harp to guitar (which he played while rolling around on his back and, at one point, doing somersaults) and then leaping up to prowl the lip of the stage. He was the Mighty Wolf, no doubt about it. Finally, an impatient signal from the wings let him know his portion of the show was over. Defiantly, Wolf counted off a bone-crushing rocker, began singing rhythmically, feigned an exit, and suddenly made a flying leap for the curtain at the side of the stage.
“Holding the microphone under his beefy right arm and singing into it all the while, he began climbing up the curtain, going higher and higher until he was perched far above the stage, the thick curtain threatening to rip, the audience screaming with delight. Then he loosened his grip and, in a single easy motion, slid right back down the curtain, hit the stage, cut off the tune, and stalked away to the most ecstatic cheers of the evening. He was then fifty-five years old.”
When you see the crowd respond to Wolf’s relatively tame Newport performance, particularly around the 2 minute mark, you start to get a sense of just how commanding he could be!
Howlin’ Wolf at Newport Folk Festival in 1966
Brooke Filsinger has spent many, many years dancing, djing, and teaching across Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Asia. When she isn’t gallivanting to dance events near and far, Brooke is based in her beloved Toronto where she is known for her unconventional and entertaining classes — but her weekly ‘Blues Music History’ class is by far her favourite!
Guralnick, Peter, and Martin Scorsese. 2003. The Blues. New York: Amistad.
“Howlin’ Wolf | Biography & History | Allmusic”. 2018. Allmusic. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/howlin-wolf-mn0000276085/biography
“Howlin’ Wolf Home Page”. 2018. Howlinwolf.Com. http://www.howlinwolf.com/
Nash, JD. 2018. “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Howlin’ Wolf – American Blues Scene”. American Blues Scene. http://www.americanbluesscene.com/10-things-didnt-know-howlin-wolf/
Palmer, Robert. 1986. Deep Blues. Harmondswort: Penguin Books.