Howlin’ Wolf (originally, Burnett, Chester Arthur)

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Howlin’ Wolf (originally, Burnett, Chester Arthur)

Howlin’ Wolf (originally, Burnett, Chester Arthur), American blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player; b. West Point, Miss., June 10, 1910; d. Hines, 111., Jan. 10, 1976. Along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most important performers of electric blues to emerge after World War II and go on to influence a generation of British and American rock musicians. His compositions and performances were recreated by The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Cream, among many others, starting in the 1960s, leading to a revival of interest in the blues and affecting the development of rock ’n’ roll. As a performer, his biggest hits were “How Many More Years/’ “Smokestack Lightnin’,” and “I Asked for Water.”

Howlin’ Wolf was the son of Dock Burnett, a farmer, and his wife, Gertrude. Raised on a plantation, he worked as a farmer through the 1930s while learning guitar from Charlie Patton and harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex “Rice” Miller), who was married to his stepsister. He himself was married to the sister of singer Willie Brown, later marrying Lillie Handley, with whom he had four children. He went into the army in 1941 and was discharged in 1945. After World War II he gradually made the transition from a farmer to a full-time entertainer, moving to West Memphis, Ark., and forming a band, then landing a show on a local radio station. He came to the attention of Sam Phillips of the Memphis Recording Service (later the studios of Phillips’s Sun Records) and talent scout Ike Turner, resulting in recording sessions in 1951 and releases on Chicago-based Chess Records and L.A.-based RPM Records. He was credited with writing both sides of the Chess single “How Many More Years”/”Moanin’ at Midnight” (his compositions usually were adaptations of existing traditional songs), each of which made the Top Ten of the R&B charts. With that, Chess signed him to a contract and he moved to Chicago.

Howlin’ Wolf spent the 1950s recording for Chess and playing primarily in Chicago clubs. “Who Will Be Next” (music and lyrics by Melvin London) made the R&B charts in June 1955; “Smokestack Lightnin’” (music and lyrics by Howlin’ Wolf) hit the R&B Top Ten in March 1956; and “I Asked for Water” (music and lyrics by Howlin’ Wolf) was in the R&B Top Ten in November 1956. In 1959, Chess released his first LP, a compilation of singles, Moanin’ at Midnight.

In the early 1960s, Howlin’ Wolf began to tour more extensively, both nationally and internationally, and as his recordings became available he attracted a larger audience. In June 1964 his recording of “Smokestack Lightnin’” entered the British charts; later in the year it was recorded by The Yardbirds, while The Rolling Stones recorded a version of his 1961 record “The Red Rooster” (music and lyrics by Willie Dixon) under the title “Little Red Rooster” and enjoyed a #1 hit with it in the U.K. in December 1964. In May 1965 the group insisted on having him as a guest star as a condition of their appearance on the U.S. television show Shindig.

In the summer of 1966 he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, his performance captured on film for the motion picture Festival (October 1967). Meanwhile, his records continued to be covered by rock groups: The Doors, whose lead singer Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by his raucous vocal style, put a version of the 1960 disc “Back Door Man” (music and lyrics by Willie Dixon) on their self-titled debut album, released in January 1967; Cream covered “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (music and lyrics by Howlin’ Wolf) and “Spoonful” (music and lyrics by Willie Dixon) on its album Wheels of Fire (June 1968); and the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart did “I Ain’t Superstitious” (music and lyrics by Willie Dixon) on their debut album, Truth (August 1968).

Chess Records attempted to take advantage of Howlin’ Wolfs increased exposure, releasing The Howlinì Wolf Album, his first LP to be recorded as such, in January 1969. It consisted of rock-oriented rerecordings of his earlier songs and was not well received, though “Evil” (music and lyrics by Willie Dixon) made the R&B charts in April.

Howlin’ Wolf was in declining health in the 1970s, suffering two heart attacks and sustaining serious injuries in two car accidents. His next album of newly recorded material, Message to the Young (March 1971), earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording (Including Traditional Blues). The London Howlinì Wolf Sessions (August 1971) found him fronting a band consisting of some of the British musicians most influenced by him, including Eric Clapton (of The Yardbirds and Cream) and members of The Rolling Stones. It spent more than three months in the charts. His last album was The Back Door Wolf (November 1973), which earned him another Grammy Award nomination for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording (Including Traditional Blues and Pure Folk). He made his final stage appearance in November 1975 and died in January 1976 at 65 due to complications from kidney disease.


Howlin’ Wolf Sings the Blues (1962); The Real Folk Blues (1966); More Real Folk Blues (1967); His Greatest Sides, Vol 1 (1967); Evil (1969); The London Howlinì Wolf Sessions (1971); The Back Door Wolf (1973); London Revisited (1974); Howlinì Wolf (1977); Heart Like a Railroad Steel (1979); Ridinì in the Moonlight (1982); Cadillac Daddy: Memphis Recordings 1952 (1989); Moaning at Midnight (1989); Memphis Days: Definitive Edition (1989); Change My Way (1990); Howlirì Wolf Rides Again (1991); Super Super Blues (1991); Howlirì Wolf: The Chess Box (1991); Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog (1994); Genuine Article: The Best of Howlirì Wolf (1995); His Best (1997); His Best, Vol 2 (1999).

—William Ruhlmann