04/22/08 - Howlin' Wolf

Tutelage Led By Vinny "Bond" Marini Tuesday, April 22, 2008


On June 10th, 1910 in White Station, MS, Chester Arthur Burnett was born to Gertrude Jones and Leon “Dock” Burnett. Named for the 21st President of the United States, Chester was given the nicknames “Big Foot” and “Bull Cow” as a child because of his massive size. He eventually grew to be well 6’3” and weighed about 275 pounds.

When Chester was still young, Leon left the family and moved into the Mississippi Delta. Gertrude was a very religious and a very strict woman. Her relationship with her son was strained from early on. While he was still a child, Gertrude threw him out of the house for refusing to work around the farm.

Chester moved in with his uncle Will Young, a man described by those that knew him as “The meanest man between here and hell.” This description seems to have fit perfectly, as stories tell us he was abusive to the young Chester.

When he was 13-years old, fed up with the abuse from his uncle, Chester took off walking barefoot some 85 miles to find his father in Ruleville, MS where he was welcomed into their home on the Young & Morrow Plantation. There he met his half-sister and step-siblings and found a warm home in which to live.

There are a number of different stories regarding his nickname. One was that his grandfather (John Jones) gave Chester the nickname he would carry the rest of his life – HOWLIN’ WOLF. The story says that granddad would tell Chester stories about the wolves that roamed that part of Mississippi and warned the young rebellious boy that if he misbehaved, they would get him.

Another bases the nickname on Chester’s trademark growl, which he fashioned after the “blue yodel” he learned from Jimmie Rodgers.

Around this time he began listening to Charley Patton and when he was 18 his father bought him a guitar and Chester began taking lessons from Mr. Patton who lived and worked on the Dockery Plantation nearby.

Chester began listening to and learning from the great Delta musicians who lived on the plantations and played in the local juke joints. They included, besides Patton, Mississippi Shieks, Tommy Johnson and Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Johnson. He learned the harmonica from Rice Miller (known as Sonny Boy Williamson II), who was dating Chester’s step-sister Mary for a period of time.

For awhile, he played music while wearing tiny wire-rim glasses and a dark suit like the only known photo of Lemon Jefferson.

Drafted in 1941, Wolf went into the Army Signal Corps and spent his time in the service mostly in the Pacific Northwest at Fort Lewis, Washington and Camp Adair, Oregon. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and was discharged from the Army, and soon moved with his girlfriend to a house in Lebanon, Tennessee.

In 1945, his girlfriend also suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Wolf left Tennessee and returned to playing music, and helping his father on his farm during the spring and fall. The rest of the year, Wolf was traveling through the South, playing with Delta blues men such as Willie Brown and Son House.

In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson. He also got a spot on radio station KWEM, playing blues and endorsing farm gear.

Ike Turned spotted Wolf and brought him to Sam Phillips, the famous record producer, who went into the studio with him and recorded some material.

These first recordings were in 1951 when he was simultaneously signed to Modern Records and Chess Records. That August, Chess released the song “How Many More Years”. Around the same time, Wolf recorded some cuts for Modern with Ike Turner. Eventually, Chess won the war of the record labels and he moved to Chicago in early 1953.

Wolf formed a band that eventually included Hubert Sumlin who became the only regular member for the remainder of Wolf’s recording career (except for a short time when Sumlin went to work with Muddy Waters).

At that time, Muddy Waters was making a big name for himself and the two, who were friends, began a competition that lasted for years. This competition began as Wolf tried to obtain songs written by Willie Dixon at the same time Muddy was hopeful to record them for the label they shared, Chess.

Some feel the rivalry between Wolf and Muddy pushed each of these men to greater success than if the rivalry had not existed.

In the 1950’s, Wolf had four songs chart on the Billboard National R&B charts; they were “How Many More Years” (1951 - #4); the flip side “Moanin’ At Midnight” (1951 - #10); “Smokestack Lightning” (1956 - #8) and “I Asked For Water” (1956 - #8). In 1958 the album Moanin’ At Midnight was released containing previously released singles and a couple of new tunes.

In 1962 the album Howlin’ Wolf was released. Many refer to this album as “The Rocking Chair” album due to the photo on the cover of an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. The album contained four songs which have become iconic in the annuals of rock and roll, having been covered by a multitude of British and American artists. They are “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Goin’ Down Slow”, “Spoonful”, and “Little Red Rooster”.

The relationship with his mother was never mended. A while after finding success in Chicago, Chester went home to visit his mama and find some peace in their relationship. It is said she drove him from the house, refusing to accept any of the money he offered her since it came from “the devil’s music”.

Chester Burnett was a rarity among those who came out of the Delta with music in their soul in that he avoided the pitfalls of alcohol and gambling and actually saved his money. At one point, Howlin' described himself as “the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta.” This he actually did, with $4,000.00 dollars in his pocket and piloting his own automobile.

Many who tried to escape the hard life of the Delta by traveling the “Blues Highway” were not as successful as Howlin' Wolf. The “Blues Highway” still exists today, though it is a bit more modern – even becoming a 4-lane highway in spots – then it was back then. Highway 61 stretches from Vicksburg, MS to Memphis, TN, traveling through the infamous town of Clarksville, MS.

COUCH NOTE: I am planning a trip sometime in the early fall to just get in the car with the Tuneage loaded up and a number of rolls of film and discover the heritage that exists along this stretch of road. I will be sharing it with you all when it happens.

Wolf met his wife Lillie when she attended one of his shows in Chicago. From an urban family, Lillie was more refined than most of the women in Wolf ’s life, but they built a strong bond, which lasted until his death. They raised two daughters, Bettye and Barbara. After their marriage, Lillie managed their finances giving Wolf the ability to pay his band members more than others could at the time.

Several musicians who played with both Muddy and Wolf say Wolf was a more professional band leader. Wolf paid his people on time and withheld unemployment insurance and even Social Security, which some of his band members are drawing today.

Wolf also stood up for his band and wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Jimmy Rogers, who played for years in Muddy’s band, said, “Wolf was better at managing a bunch of people than Muddy or anybody else. Muddy would go along with the Chess company. [But] Wolf would speak up for himself.”

In the early 60’s Wolf traveled to Europe to appear with the American Blues Festival tour, making a name for himself on the other side of the Atlantic.

He seemed to understand that these young rock artists were the next generation of musicians as he was after the great Delta blues artists and he built strong relationships with many of them.

This led to the 1970 album The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions, recorded in London with Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr and Steve Winwood among others.

In the early 70’s his health began to deteriorate. Having already suffered a heart attack a few years before, an auto accident in 1970 caused irreparable damage to his kidney, necessitating frequent dialysis treatments.

Despite failing health, Wolf continued to play live and released three final albums; the 1972 Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited (a Chicago blues club), a second London album London Revisited with Muddy Waters and his last studio album Back Door Wolf.

His last performance was in Chicago in November of 1975 with B.B. King. Two months later he passed from kidney failure. His wife Lillie was laid by his side when she passed in 2001.

Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall Of Fame in 1980. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame under the “Early Influence” category in 1991 and in 2003, he was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.

The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society was formed in West Point, MS in 1996 and the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival is held each year since 1996.
It does not matter if you are a fan of rock, soul, alternative, metal, or folk, Howlin’ has been covered by them all. Here are just a few examples: