Howlin' Wolf

Howlin' Wolf

Chester Burnett redirects here. For the American football player, see Chester Burnett (American football)

Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910January 10, 1976), better known as Howlin' Wolf or sometimes, The Howlin' Wolf, was an influential blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player.

With a booming voice and looming physical presence, Burnett is commonly ranked among the leading performers in electric blues; musician and critic Cub Koda declared, "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. Many songs written or popularized by Burnett—such as "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Back Door Man" and "Spoonful"—have become standards of blues and blues rock.

Early life

Born in White Station near West Point, Mississippi, he was named after Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States, and was nicknamed Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow in his early years because of his massive size. He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf thus: "I got that from my grandfather [John Jones]." He used to tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved, they would "get him". As a youth he listened to Charley Patton, who taught him the rudiments of guitar, as well as to the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, and Jimmie Rodgers, whose famous "blue yodel" Burnett integrated into his singing style. His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Rice Miller (also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II), who had lived with his sister for a time and taught him how to play. He played with Robert Johnson and Willie Brown in his youth.

He farmed during the 1930s, served in the United States Army as a radioman in Seattle during World War II, and by 1948 had formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and M. T. Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction", and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, alternating between performing and pitching farm equipment, and auditioned for Sam Phillips's Memphis Recording Service in 1951.

According to the documentary film The Howlin' Wolf Story, Howlin' Wolf's parents broke up when he was young. His very religious mother Gertrude threw him out of the house for refusing to work around the farm while still a child; 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 barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home within his father's large family. During the peak of his success, he returned from Chicago to his home town to see his mother again, but was driven to tears when she rebuffed him and refused to take any money he offered her, saying it was from his playing the "Devil's music".


Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included both Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at Modern Records and Leonard Chess' Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin' Wolf's How Many More Years in August 1951; Wolf also recorded sides for Modern, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and Wolf settled in Chicago, Illinois c. 1953. Upon arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Joseph Leon "Jody" Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year Wolf enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. Although the line up of Wolf's band would change regularly over the years, employing 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 Abe "Little Smokey" Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie "Abu Talib" Robinson, and Buddy Guy, among others, with the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late '50s Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Wolf's career, and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin' Wolf sound. He got an award for it.

In the 1950s Wolf had four songs that qualified as "hits" on the Billboard national R&B charts: "How Many More Years", his first and biggest hit, made it to #4 in 1951; its flip side, "Moanin' at Midnight", made it to #10 the same year; "Smoke Stack Lightning" charted for three weeks in 1956, peaking at #8; and "I Asked For Water" appeared on the charts for one week in 1956, in the #8 position. In 1958, Wolf's first album Moanin' in the Moonlight album, a compilation of previously released singles. was released.

His 1962 album Howlin' Wolf is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as "The Rocking Chair album" because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained "Wang Dang Doodle", "Goin' Down Slow", "Spoonful", and "Little Red Rooster", songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1964 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album. He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who is credited with such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Little Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Evil", "Wang Dang Doodle" (later recorded by Koko Taylor), and others.

In September, 1967, he joined forces with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters for The Super Super Blues Band album of Chess blues standards, including "The Red Rooster" and "Spoonful".

In May of 1970, Howlin' Wolf, his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp traveled to London along with Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973. Chess released a Howlin' Wolf compilation album, Chess Masters, in 1981.

Unlike many other blues musicians, after he left his impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin' Wolf 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 four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time. In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling, and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as "loose women", to which so many of his peers fell prey. Though functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a G.E.D., and later to study accounting and other business courses aimed to help his business career.

Wolf 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 not involved in what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Wolf 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 Lillie's two daughters from an earlier relationship, Bettye and Barbara.

After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.

At 6 foot, 6 inches (198cm) and close to 300 pounds (136 kg), he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s Chicago blues singers. Howlin' Wolf's voice has been compared to "the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road". Although the two were reportedly not that different in actual personality, this rough edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less flamboyant but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters, to describe the two pillars of the Chicago Blues representing the two sides of the music.

Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs and Muddy Waters are usually regarded in retrospect as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked of Chester Arthur Burnett, "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' " In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #51 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time

Chester Burnett "Howlin Wolf" died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, IL, and is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois, USA Plot: Section 18, on the east side of the road. His large gravestone, allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton, has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.

Selective awards and recognitions

Grammy Hall of Fame

A recording of Howlin' Wolf was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Howlin' Wolf Grammy Award History
Year Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1956 Smokestack Lightning Blues (Single) Chess 1999

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed three songs by Howlin' Wolf of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Year Recorded Title
1956 Smokestack Lightning
1960 Spoonful
1962 The Red Rooster

The Blues Foundation Awards

Howlin' Wolf: Blues Music Awards
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

On September 17, 1994 the U.S. Post Office issues a Howlin' Wolf 29 cents commemorative postage stamp.

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


Countless artists have recorded cover versions of Howlin' Wolf songs; listed below are some of the recordings:

  • Jeff Beck covered "I Ain't Superstitious" in his album "Truth".
  • Savoy Brown, known then as the Savoy Brown Blues Band, covered "I Ain't Superstitious" to launch their debut album, Shake Down, in 1967.
  • Megadeth also covered "I Ain't Superstitious" on their album Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? in the same form as Jeff Beck's version.
  • "Little Baby" was covered by the Rolling Stones
  • "Who's Been Talkin'" was covered by Robert Cray on the album of the same name.
  • "Goin' Down Slow" was covered by Mike Finnigan on Dave Mason's live album "Certified Live"
  • "Little Red Rooster" was covered by Sam Cooke in 1963, The Doors (which appears on their live album Alive, She Cried), and by The Rolling Stones in 1964, The Grateful Dead frequently included this song in live shows.
  • Both The Yardbirds and The Animals covered "Smokestack Lightning" in 1964 and 1966 respectively.
  • Little Feat covered "Forty-Four Blues / How Many More Years" for their first, self titled album, Little Feat
  • Led Zeppelin covered "Killing Floor" in 1968-69 concerts and used the song as the basis for "The Lemon Song" on Led Zeppelin II. "Smokestack Lightning" and "How Many More Years" served as partial blueprints for "How Many More Times" on their 1969 debut album.
  • The Doors covered "Back Door Man" for their first, self titled album, The Doors
  • The Electric Prunes regularly covered "Smokestack Lightnin'" in their live shows, a recording of which can be found on their Stockholm '67 LP.
  • The Electric Flag recorded "Killing Floor" on their first album, with Buddy Miles and Michael Bloomfield, both students of Wolf.
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience covered "Killing Floor" at a BBC Saturday Club radio session in 1967, a recording of which is available on their 1998 BBC Sessions compilation, and opened with it at the Monterey Pop Festival (also in 1967). This song also served as the first jam between Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with the Cream when they first met at The Polytechnic in London in 1966.
  • Guitar legend Mike Bloomfield used a brassy, driving arrangement of "Killing Floor" to launch the debut album by his Electric Flag, A Long Time Comin'. This track began with a brief excerpt from a speech by then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, then recorded applause and laughter, before the group began to play the introduction to their version. The Electric Flag also included a second Wolf cover, "Goin' Down Slow," on the same album.
  • Cream also covered one of his songs on their double-album Wheels of Fire. (They also covered his song, "Spoonful", on their Fresh Cream debut album; an extended concert version appears on Wheels.) On the first (studio) disc, Cream covered "Sitting on Top of the World". This song has also been covered by Bob Dylan in the 1992 album Good as I been to you. Howlin' Wolf's own version was a cover of the 1930 classic original by the Mississippi Sheiks.
  • Eric Clapton's subsequent band, Derek and the Dominos, included a cover of Wolf's "Evil" as part of a planned second album that was never completed before the quartet split up. "Evil" was one of the surviving tracks from that project that turned up on the Clapton box set, Crossroads, in 1988.
  • Soundgarden covered "Smokestack Lightning" on their first album Ultramega OK.
  • Clutch covered "Who's Been Talking" on their 2005 release Robot Hive/Exodus.
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan covered three Howlin' Wolf songs on his studio albums: "Tell Me" appears on Texas Flood; "You'll be mine" (written by Willie Dixon) on Soul to Soul and "Love Me Darlin'" on In Step. Vaughan also played "Shake for me" (written by W.Dixon) on the live album In the Beginning, even copying the original guitar solo, played by Hubert Sumlin and "I'm Leaving You (Commit a Crime)" can be found from Live-Alive album.
  • George Thorogood covered "Highway 49" and "Smokestack Lightning" on Born to be Bad in 1988. He also covered "Howlin' for My Baby" in 1993 on Haircut.
  • On The Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD, "Killing Floor" was performed by Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan. It is quite possible that the guitar riff from the song was written by Sumlin.
  • "Little Red Rooster" was covered by British alternative band The Jesus and Mary Chain on their Sound of Speed album
  • PJ Harvey covered "Wang Dang Doodle" in her early years and was released on a 2002 b-sides & rarities album
  • Tom Waits has covered "Who's Been Talking?" several times during live performances.
  • Iron & Wine released a live cover of "Smokestack Lightning" on a compilation CD entitled Hope Isn't a Word that came with issue 15 of the magazine Comes With a Smile.
  • Monster Magnet performed their own rendition of "Evil" on their 1993 album, Superjudge
  • Smokestack Lightning was a staple of early Grateful Dead shows during the Pigpen era, and was revived by the band (with Bob Weir on vocals) during the 1990s. The Dead also performed "Little Red Rooster," "Wang Dang Doodle," "I Ain't Superstitious," "Meet Me In The Bottom" and "Sitting on Top of the World" at various points in their career.
  • Cactus recorded their version of the song "Evil" on their 1971 album Restrictions. It also appeared on their best-of album entitled Cactology.
  • The Who often included a fragment of Smokestack Lightning in a medley with their cover of Johnny Kidd's Shakin' All Over. The "Smokestack Lightning" extract was edited out of the version of "Shakin' All Over" that appeared on the album Live At Leeds . . . but a medley of "Shakin'" with an extract from "Spoonful" turned up on The Who Live at the Isle of Wight.
  • The Radiators recorded "Sittin' On Top Of The World" on their live double CD Earth vs. The Radiators: the First 25. They have covered many Howlin' Wolf songs in their 4200 known live performances. "Forty-Four Blues" and "Sittin' On Top Of The World" are long-time staples of their live shows, having been performed over 100 times each. Other Howlin' Wolf songs performed live by the Radiators include: "Built For Comfort", "Back Door Man", "Down In The Bottom", "Howlin' For My Baby", "Killing Floor", "Little Red Rooster", "Shake For Me", "Smokestack Lightning", "Spoonful", "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Who's Been Talkin'".
  • The Derek Trucks Band covers "Forty Four" on their 'Out of the Madness' album and regularly live, and recently have covered "Down In The Bottom" in their live shows.

Music samples


Trivia and Tributes

  • The Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival is held each year in West Point, Mississippi.
  • Wolf's Juke Joint Jam is another annual Howlin' Wolf tribute festival held in West Point. Some of the artists who have played 'Wolf Jam' include Wolf's lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters' back band of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and "Steady Rollin" Bob Margolin, Willie King, Blind Mississippi Morris, Kenny Brown, Burnside Exploration, etc. The festival is held at the 500-acre festival grounds know as Waverly Waters Resort, and is sponsored by 2 Brothers Brand barbecue sauce and seasonings.
  • French singer/song writer Francis Cabrel refers to Howlin' Wolf in the song "Cent Ans de Plus" on the 1999 album "Hors-Saison". Cabrel cites the artist as one of a number of blues influences, including Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon, Robert Johnson (musician), Blind Blake, Willie Dixon and Ma Rainey.
  • An unusual tribute to Howlin' Wolf was given in Marvel Comics Presents #65 in 1990, in a story written by Peter Gillis; in it, the superhero Starfox finds Howlin' Wolf alive and playing on an alien planet. Starfox then reveals that he had scooped Wolf off of his deathbed, healed him using alien technology, and given him the ability to transform into a literal werewolf.
  • Irish Rock band That Petrol Emotion titled the first song on their second album "Babble," "Chester Burnett."
  • American New Wave act The Knack named their second album "...But the Little Girls Understand," which is a lyric from the Willie Dixon penned Howlin' Wolf hit "Backdoor Man."
  • American music performer Captain Beefheart (née Don Van Vliet) has a voice that sounds very much like that of Howlin' Wolf.
  • In Hey Arnold, a Nikelodeon cartoon, Howlin' Wolf is given reference by the postman in the alias of a fictitious Blues singer known as 'Raspy Wolf' a blues artist who was supposedly known for singing in a raspy voice.
  • Rock band Led Zeppelin was deeply influenced by Wolf. They covered his songs (see above), and appropriated his riffs in some of their biggest hits, including "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love." Also, in "Whole Lotta Love", Robert Plant cries out, "Shake for me girl, I wanna be your backdoor man," an obvious reference to two Howlin' Wolf songs.
  • Writer Nathan Singer's time-travel novel, "Chasing the Wolf," has Howlin' Wolf as a primary character.
  • A song entitled Wolf Like Me by experimental rock band TV on the Radio was a tribute to Howlin' Wolf
  • Lowell George calls Burnett the man who invented Rock & Roll in an introduction and dedication to his "Apolitical Blues" which also includes his great story of his experience and awe when he met Burnett.

External links

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