Howlin' Wolf

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"Chester Burnett" redirects here. For the American football player, see Chester Burnett (American football).
Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf 1972.JPG
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 a Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player, originally 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 recalled, "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, including "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[edit]

Burnett was born on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, near West Point. He was given the name Chester Arthur, after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. His physique garnered him the nicknames 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 tell him stories about wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved the "howling wolves" would get him. The blues historian Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.[4]

Burnett's parents separated when he was one year old. His mother, Gertrude, threw him out of the house while he was a child, for refusing to work on 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 with his father's large family. At the peak of his success, he returned from Chicago to see his mother in Mississippi and was driven to tears when she rebuffed him: she refused to take money offered by him, saying it was from his playing the "devil's music".

Musical career[edit]

1930s and 1940s[edit]

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 would 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. Burnett tried to emulate Rodgers's "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 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 numerous 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 an 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, he was discharged on November 3, 1943. He returned to his family, who had recently moved near 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, Arkansas.


In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded several songs by Howlin' Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service.[8] Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. His first singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: "How Many More Years" backed with "Moaning at Midnight", released by Chess Records, and "Riding in the Moonlight" backed with "Moaning at Midnight", released 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 persuaded 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 lineup of the Howlin' Wolf band changed often over the years. He employed 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 because of his policy, unusual among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, even including unemployment insurance and 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 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. As was standard practice in that era, it was a collection of previously released singles.

1960s and 1970s[edit]

In the early 1960s, Howlin' Wolf recorded several songs that became his most famous, despite receiving no radio play: "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. Several became part of the repertoires of British and American rock groups, who further popularized them. Howlin' Wolf's second compilation album, Howlin' Wolf (often called "the rocking chair album", from its cover illustration), was released in 1962.

During the blues revival in the 1950s and 1960s, black blues musicians 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, produced by the German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the popular television program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose recording of "Little Red Rooster" had 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 psychedelic rock and free jazz musicians like Gene Barge, Pete Cosey, Roland Faulkner, Morris Jennings, Louis Satterfield, Charles Stepney and Phil Upchurch; and The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, accompanied by British rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others.

The Howlin' Wolf Album, like rival bluesman Muddy Waters's album Electric Mud, was designed to target the hippie audience. The album had an attention-getting cover: large black letters on a white background proclaiming "This is Howlin' Wolf's new album. He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either." The album cover may have contributed to its poor sales. Chess co-founder Leonard Chess admitted that the cover was a bad 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, like Muddy Waters's London album, proved more successful with British audiences than American.

Wolf's last album was 1973's The Back Door Wolf. Entirely composed of brand new material, it was recorded with musicians who regularly backed him on stage, including Hubert Sumlin, Detroit Junior, Chico Chism, Lafayette "Shorty" Gilbert and band leader Eddie Shaw. Due to Wolf's declining health, at little more than 35 minutes, The Back Door Wolf runs shorter than any other album he recorded.

Personal life[edit]

Unlike many other blues musicians who left an impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, 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 bluesman 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 to help manage his 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 were not involved in what was considered 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 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 enabled him to hire his pick of available musicians and keep his band one of the best around. According to his stepdaughters, he was never financially extravagant (for instance, he drove a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car).

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


At the start of 1976, Burnett checked into the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois, for kidney surgery. He 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]

Selected awards and recognition[edit]

Grammy Hall of Fame[edit]

A Howlin' Wolf recording of "Smokestack Lightning" was selected for a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, an award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and 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[edit]

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf in its "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.[13]

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

The Blues Foundation Awards[edit]

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[edit]

On September 17, 1994, the US Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp depicting Howlin' Wolf.

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[edit]

The Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a nonprofit corporation organized under the US tax code, section 501(c)(3), was established by Bettye Kelly to preserve and extend Howlin' Wolf's legacy. The foundation's mission and goals include the preservation of the blues music genre, scholarships to enable students to participate in music programs, and support for blues musicians and blues programs.[15]



Year Titles (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
US R&B Album
1951 "How Many More Years" / 4 Moanin' In The Moonlight
"Moanin' At Midnight" 10
"Riding In The Moonlight"
b/w "Morning At Midnight"
Howling Wolf Sings The Blues
"Passing By Blues"
b/w "Crying At Daybreak" (from Howling Wolf Sings The Blues)
Non-album tracks
1952 "The Wolf Is At Your Door"
b/w "Howlin' Wolf Boogie"
"My Baby Stole Off"
b/w "I Want Your Picture"
"Gettin' Old and Grey"
b/w "Mr. Highway Man"
"Saddle My Pony"
b/w "Worried All The Time"
1953 "Oh Red!!"
b/w "My Last Affair"
"All Night Boogie"
b/w "I Love My Baby" (from More Real Folk Blues)
Moanin' In The Moonlight
1954 "No Place To Go"
b/w "Rockin' Daddy" (from More Real Folk Blues)
"Baby How Long"
b/w "Evil Is Goin' On"
"I'll Be Around"
b/w "Forty Four" (from Moanin' In The Moonlight)
More Real Folk Blues
1955 "Who Will Be Next"
b/w "I Have A Little Girl"
"Come To Me Baby"
b/w "Don't Mess With My Baby"
Non-album tracks
1956 "Smokestack Lightning"
b/w "You Can't Be Beat" (from More Real Folk Blues)
8 Moanin' In The Moonlight
"I Asked For Water"
b/w "So Glad" (Non-album track)
1957 "Going Back Home"
b/w "My Life"
Non-album tracks
"Somebody In My Home"
b/w "Nature" (from The Real Folk Blues)
Moanin' In The Moonlight
1958 "Sitting On Top Of The World"
b/w "Poor Boy"
The Real Folk Blues
"I Didn't Know"
b/w "Moanin' For My Baby" (from Moanin' In The Moonlight)
Change My Way
"I'm Leaving You"
b/w "Change My Way" (from Change My Way)
Moanin' In The Moonlight
1959 "I Better Go Now"
b/w "Howlin' Blues"
Change My Way
"I've Been Abused"
b/w "Mr. Airplane Man"
"The Natchez Burning"
b/w "You Gonna Wreck My Life" (from More Real Folk Blues)
The Real Folk Blues
1960 "Tell Me"
b/w "Who's Been Talking"
Howlin' Wolf
b/w "Howlin' For My Darling"
1961 "Wang-Dang Doodle"
b/w "Back Door Man"
"Down In The Bottom"
b/w "Little Baby"
"The Red Rooster"
b/w "Shake For Me"
1962 "You'll Be Mine"
b/w "Goin' Down Slow"
"I Ain't Superstitious"
b/w "Just Like I Treat You"
Change My Way
"Mama's Baby"
b/w "Do The Do" (from Change My Way)
Non-album track
1963 "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy"
b/w "Built For Comfort"
The Real Folk Blues
1964 "Hidden Charms"
b/w "Tail Dragger" (from The Real Folk Blues)
Change My Way
"My Country Sugar Mama"
b/w "Love Me Darling" (from Change My Way)
The Real Folk Blues
1965 "Louise"
b/w "Killing Floor"
"Tell Me What I've Done"
b/w "Ooh Baby"
"Don't Laugh At Me"
b/w "I Walked From Dallas"
Change My Way
1966 "New Crawling King Snake"
b/w "My Mind Is Ramblin'
1967 "Pop It To Me"
b/w "I Had A Dream"
Non-album tracks
1969 "Evil"
b/w "Tail Dragger"
43 The Howlin' Wolf Album
1970 "Mary Sue"
b/w "Hard Luck"
Non-album tracks
1971 "I Smell A Rat"
b/w "Just As Long"
Message To The Young
1973 "Coon On The Moon"
b/w "The Back Door Wolf"
The Back Door Wolf




  1. ^ Koda, Cub. "Howlin' Wolf – Artist Biography". AllMusic. Rovi. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  2. ^ The Howlin' Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock & Roll.
  3. ^ "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time". Rolling Stone (946). 2004. Retrieved July 26, 2016. 
  4. ^ Oliver 1969, p. 150.
  5. ^ a b Segrest 2004, p. 19.
  6. ^ Segrest 2004, p. 20.
  7. ^ Gifford, Barry. "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". The Recording Academy. 1999. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  13. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 1995. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Awards Search". The Blues Foundation. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  15. ^ "Mission & Goal". Howlin' Wolf Foundation. Howlin' Wolf Foundation. Retrieved April 17, 2014. 
  16. ^ Segrest 2004, Sessionography