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One of the Wonders of American Music--Howlin' Wolf

Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf, was a musical genius.  Yes, as much a musical genius as Ludvig von Beethoven.  The reason he didn't grow into a towering composer of world-class symphonies, had everything to do with the color of his skin, and of the time and place of where he was born and grew into manhood.

The expression, "talent does what it can; genus does what it must" definitely applies to Chester Burnett; nothing could stop him from learning and mastering his craft of being a blues singer, not a lack of a steady income, not hostile white southerners, nothing, no one.

Chester Arthur Burnett was born to a poor dirt farming family  in White Station, Mississippi, in 1910, a time when the Jim Crow South was at the height of its hateful power and evil influence.  Indeed, the authors of the Howlin' Wolf biography, describe in painful detail just how difficult Chester Burnett's years were growing up in the Deep South.  Despite the mountains of racial prejudice he faced on a daily basis, Chester Burnett kept his dignity and pursued his dream of being a blues singer with the power and passion of the ones he saw performing in black bars and blues clubs in the Mississippi Delta.  After 20 years of perfecting his craft, Chester Burnett not only mastered this form of music, but surpassed the very blues musicians he had once idolized.

At the age of 40, and now known as Howlin' Wolf, he arrived at Sam Phillips' recording studio in Memphis, TN.  He sang with such power and grit, that he stunned everyone in the studio.  Sam Phillips, the owner, producer, and resident genius of what would become Sun Records, had never heard anything like it before, and praised his singing, and would later say, "God, what it would be worth on film to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. I mean, his eyes would light up and you'd see the veins come out on the back on his neck, and, buddy, there was nothing in his mind but that song.  He sang with his damn soul.  Awwww  . . . how different, how good!  I would love to have recorded that man until the day he died.  I never would have given up on him."  Because Sam Phillips recording studio, was not yet a record label, what he recorded were demos that we would send on to Chess Records in Chicago.  Impressed, Leonard and Phil Chess asked Phillips to set up a full-blown recording session with Wolf as soon as possible.

Phillips only recorded two songs at Wolf's first session in the summer of 1951, but they were two of Wolf's most powerful and memorable:  "Moaning' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years."


Unknown outside the city limits of Memphis, Sam Phillips, would later record the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and be credited as "the man who invented Rock N Roll".  However, of all the great and legendary talents who would pass through his studio, including blues legend, B.B. King, Sam Phillips said, Howlin' Wolf was the greatest musician he would ever record.

Despite his many difficulties living in the Jim Crow South, Chester Burnett managed to get by on the meager money he earned performing in a variety of run-down clubs and bars throughout the Deep South.  Along the way he befriended the most popular bluesman in the Mississippi Delta, Charley Patton. It was Patton's outrageous guitar stylings that Burnett copied.  "When he played 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.  He was more clown than he was a musician, it seems.  But I never did hear nobody mocking and using his patterns much."

Chester played with Patton often.  They made an odd couple: Burnett was six-foot-three and weighed more than 200-hundred pounds.  He had a huge head, was big boned, with large hands and feet.  According to his biographers, his skin was a rich, dark brown  On the other hand, Patton was short, slight, and light-complexioned, and had wavy hair and large ears.

Just as Chester learned from and would exceed Patton on guitar, he would learn to play harmonica from another blues master, Sonny Boy Williams, and in time would exceed him, too.  His distinctive singing style he would learn from black country singer Jimmie Rodgers, including Rodgers legendary "blue yodel".  However Burnett found his effort to yodel, sounded more like a growl or a howl.  Says Burnett: "I couldn't do no yodelin', so I turned to howlin', and it's done me just fine."

Appropriately, it was Jimmie Rodgers who coined Burnett's nickname, as "Howlin' Wolf".


In the early 1940s, having switched to electric guitar, and with an electrified all-star band of seasoned blues musicians behind him, the Howlin' Wolf legend was in full-swing.  Howlin' Wolf was the front man, who would alternate between playing the harmonica and working out on his electric guitar.  As great as his band was, there was no question who was in charge.  Howlin' Wolf was not only the best and most-gifted musician in the band, he had incredible hearing, and a clear vision of what he wanted, and, if someone didn't measure up, he was dropped. Note: there was always a line of musicians who would give anything to perform with him, so finding a replacement was never an issue.

This was the state of things when Howlin' Wolf and his band began performing in bars and blues clubs in Memphis. This was in the early 1950s. When Sam Phillips first heard Wolf perform, he jumped at the chance to record him.  Phillips would later recall: "Wolf came over to the studio, and he was about six-foot-six, with the biggest feet I've seen on a human being. 'Big Foot Chester' is one name they used to call him.  He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest thing you see to this day would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio.  God, what it was worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang."

The band that showed up in the summer of 1951--for the first official recording session--featured Willie Johnson on electric guitar, Wolf on vocals and harmonica, Willie Steele, on drums, and Albert Small on piano, all seasoned veterans of Howlin' Wolf's legendary shows throughout the Jim Crow South.  The band was so tight, it was decided they didn't need a bass player.

Both tunes were composed by Howlin' Wolf. Because he had never been taught read and write, Wolf would dictate his lyrics to one of his bandmates (later these lyrics would be printed and presented to a music publisher for copyright  protection).  The first two songs recorded were: "Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years."

The recorded sound was like nothing ever heard before: three minutes of pure, surreal worry.  Phillips said: "I can take on damn record like 'Moanin' at Midnight' and forget every damn thing else that the man ever cut and that is a classic thing that nobody can improve upon!"

Released on Chess Records in September 1951, "Moanin' at Midnight' and "How Many More Years" was a double-sided hit.  By the middle of October, the record was on the Cash Box hot chart in Dallas.  It was number 1 in Dallas from November 17 to December 1, 1951, and entered Billboard's national R&B Top 10 chart in November.  In the next few months, the record also charted in Atlanta, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Newark, and Opelousas, Louisiana.

Everyone associated with the record was excited. Recalled guitarist Willie Johnson: "When I first heard "Moanin' at Midnight' on the radio, I knowed who it was.  But it was funny to me.  I say to myself: 'Listen at me! . . .  Then all my friends and family heard it.  Wolf went to gettin' bookings, oh man, all over then."

In December 1951, Leonard Chess was able to secure Howlin' Wolf's contract, and, at the urging of Chess Records, Wolf relocated to Chicago in late 1952.

In Chicago, Howlin' Wolf assembled a new band, and recruited Chicagoan Jody William as his latest guitarist.  Within a year he had persuaded the guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago.  The lineup of Howlin' Wolf's band would change over the years, but Sumlin remained a fixture of the band for the rest of Howlin' Wolf's career.

Wolf was able to attract some of the best musicians available because of his policy--unusual among bandleaders--of paying his musicians well and on time, even including unemployment insurance and Social Security contributions.

Now recording exclusively for Chess Records, Howlin' Wolf had a series of hit records written by Willie Dixon, who had been hired by the Chess brothers in 1950 as a songwriter.  During that time the competition between Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf was intense.  Of this time, Dixon said, "Every once in a while Wolf should mention the fact that, 'Hey man, you wrote that song for Muddy.  How come you won't write me one like that?'  But when you would write for him, he wouldn't like it."  So Dixon decided to use reverse psychology on him, by introducing the songs to Wolf as written for Muddy, thus inducing Wolf to accept them.

In the 1950s, Howlin' Wolf had five songs 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).  His first LP, Moanin' in the Moonlight, was released in 1959.  As was the standard practice at the time, it was a collection of previously released singles.

In the early 1960s, Howlin' Wolf recorded several songs that would become his most famous, despite receiving no radio play:  "Wang Dang Doodle", "Back Door Man", "Little Red Rooster", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Goin' Down Slow", and "Killing Floor".

While Howlin' Wolf's records sold well among African Americans, they received little or no airplay on American Top 40 Radio.  However, in England, among a generation of hip young white teens, the records of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, sold like hotcakes.  Indeed, the likes of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, absolutely worshipped the music of African American blues musicians, and would stand in line for hours to watch their heroes perform in public.  Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood were likewise mesmerized by their music.  When they joined with others fanatics of American blues, they tried to imitate their records, while developing a decidedly black sound.  Of all the English bands to follow the Beatles to America, the most successful band playing American Blues was the Rolling Stones.  By the time the Stones recorded their number one hit, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," they had so successfully synthesized American Blues into their songwriting, that everyone thought their song had been composed by an African American.  In 1965, quite by coincidence, Howlin' Wolf and the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform on "Shindig", a national TV show that appealed to a young American audience, the show's producer, Jack Good, wanted Wolf on the show, but somebody high up at the network didn't like the idea.

The  Stones said that if Wolf wasn't on the show, they wouldn't be either.  The network gave in.  It was the first time on American TV for Wolf and the Rolling Stones.  "It was a very brief brush with greatness," recalled Keith Richards.  "The idea of working with the guy that brought you "Smokestack lighten'--whoa!  You're in awe. . . . Howlin' Wolf was a large guy with a very large heart.  He didn't say a lot, but he didn't have to . . .  We were just surprised to be in America, let alone doing a TV show in L.A with Howlin' Wolf."

As Wolf's popularity grew, so did his white audience, particularly among teens. It was a phenomina that included most black musicians.

In 1973, Howlin' Wolf recorded his fourth and last studio album, the masterful blues classic, "Back Door Wolf."  Written on the album sleeve were these words: "The best artists surprise us with their original discoveries within the perimeters of the obvious.  Beethoven did it with the sonata and Howlin' Wolf did it with the blues."

Howlin' Wolf's health began to deteriorate in the late 1960s.  He suffered his first heart attack in 1969.  His last public appearance was in November 1975 at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.  He shared the bill with B.B. King, Albert King, Luther Allison, and O.V. Wright.  Not to be outperformed, Wolf gave an "unforgettable" performance, even crawling across the stage during the song, "Crawling King Snake."  The crowd gave him a five-minute standing ovation.  When he got off the stage after the concert, a team of paramedics had to revive him.

Howlin' Wolf died of cancer, January 10, 1976, aged 65.  He body was laid to rest in Oakridge Cemetery, in Hillside, Illinois.

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