Chester Arthur Burnett, known professionally as Howlin' Wolf, was a Chicago blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. Originally from Mississippi, he moved to Chicago in adulthood and became successful, forming a professional rivalry with fellow bluesman Muddy Waters. With a booming voice and imposing physical presence, he is one of the best-known Chicago blues artists.
Childhood and Early Music Career
Chester Arthur Burnett was born on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi to Gertrude Jones and Leon "Dock" Burnett. He would later say that his father was "Ethiopian", while Jones had Choctaw ancestry on her father's side. He was named for 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 tall and often weighed close to 300 pounds.
The name "Howlin' Wolf" originated from Burnett's maternal grandfather, who would admonish him for killing his grandmother's chicks from reckless squeezing by warning him that wolves in the area would come and get him; the family would continue this by calling Burnett "the Wolf". The blues historian Paul Oliver wrote that Burnett once claimed to have been given his nickname by his idol Jimmie Rodgers.
Burnett's parents separated when he was a year old. His father, Dock, who had worked seasonally as a farm laborer in the Mississippi Delta, moved there permanently while his mother and he moved to Monroe County. Chester and his mother would sing together in the choir of the Life Boat Baptist Church near Gibson, Mississippi. He would later claim that he got his musical talent from her. His mother kicked Burnett out of the house during the winter when he was a child for unknown reasons. He then moved in with his great-uncle Will Young, who had a large household and treated him badly. While living in the Young household he worked almost all day and did not receive an education at the school house. When he was thirteen, he killed one of his uncle's hogs in a rage after the hog had caused him to ruin his dress clothes; this enraged his uncle who then whipped him while chasing him on a mule. He then ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home with his father's large family. During this era he went by the name "John D." to dissociate himself from his past, a name by which several of his relatives would know him for the rest of his life.
Move to Chicago, Great Migration
In 1951, Ike Turner, who was a freelance talent scout, heard Howlin' Wolf in West Memphis. Turner brought him to record several songs for Sam Phillips at Memphis Recording Service (later renamed Sun Studio) and the Bihari brothers at Modern Records. Phillips praised his singing, saying, "God, what it would be worth on film to see the fervour in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up, you'd see the veins come out on his neck and, buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul." Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included the guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. Sun Records had not yet been formed, so Phillips licensed his recording to Chess Records. Howlin' Wolf's first singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: "Moanin' at Midnight"/"How Many More Years" released on Chess, "Riding in the Moonlight"/"Morning at Midnight," and "Passing By Blues"/"Crying at Daybreak" released on Modern's subsidiary RPM Records. In December 1951, Leonard Chess was able to secure Howlin' Wolf's contract, and at the urging of Chess, he relocated to Chicago in late 1952 during the Great Migration.
In Chicago, Howlin' Wolf assembled a new band and recruited the Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year he had persuaded the guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's understated solos and surprisingly subtle phrasing perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice. 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. 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.
Burnett met his future wife, Lillie, when she attended one of his performances at 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. Nevertheless, he was attracted to her as soon as he saw her in the audience. He immediately pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. Together, they raised two daughters Betty 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.
Burnett's health began declining in the late 1960s. He had several heart attacks and suffered bruised kidneys in a car accident in 1970. Concerned for his health, the bandleader Eddie Shaw limited him to performing 21 songs per concert.
In January 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, at the age of 65. His gravestone has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.
According to the musician and critic Cub Koda, "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." Producer Sam Phillips recalled, "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" Several of his songs, including "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful", have become blues and blues rock standards. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 54 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".