Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society Bios and Photos

Howlin' WolfHowlin’ Wolf

(born Chester Arthur Burnett)

June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976
Birthplace: West Point, Mississippi

Howlin’ Wolf was possibly the most electrifying performer in modern blues history and a recording artist whose only rivals among his contemporaries were Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter, and Muddy Waters. Like these artists, Wolf was a dean of electric Chicago blues during the genre’s heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s. A large, intimidating man who stood well over six feet tall and weighed close to three hundred pounds, Wolf’s gripping histrionics and sheer physical intensity gave new meaning to the blues nearly every time he performed. He would jump about the stage like an angry man trying to work off dangerous steam, or wriggle on the floor as if he was in unbearable pain, or whoop and howl and hoot like someone who had succumbed to the worst of demons. Wolf acted out his most potent blues; he became the living embodiment of its most powerful forces.

Musically, Wolf was an amalgam of blues styles. His originality lay in the way he crafted all his influences into one invigorating form. He learned how to play guitar by watching and listening to Charley Patton, from whom he also picked up valuable performing pointers (Patton was known to accent his performances with all kinds of pre-rock & roll showmanship). Wolf was taught how to play harmonica by none other than Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) after the harp player had married Wolf ‘s half-sister. Finally, Wolf learned the art of expanding the range of his cracked, gruff voice with yodels and moans from the likes of Tommy Johnson and the blues-influenced country singer Jimmie Rogers. When Wolf merged all of these elements and projected them from his massive frame, the results could stir even the most passive or skeptical listener.

That Wolf didn’t begin to record until the onset of middle age gave him plenty of time to absorb the meaning of the blues. He spent his first forty or so years balancing the life of a bluesman with that of a farmer. He knew better than many of the celebrated blues artists who came after him, of the unbreakable bond the blues had with the land and the labor that went into working it, especially in the Delta.

Though Wolf played both guitar and harp, he was a master of neither. He also was a traditionalist who refused to let his blues change with the times and grow into something it hadn’t been when he began playing back in the late 1920s. But in the end, Wolf demonstrated again and again that his blues was a timeless form that could transcend styles and eras without growing moss or sounding stale.

Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the late-nineteenth century American president. He was nicknamed “Howlin’ Wolf” as a child, supposedly a reflection of his mischievous behavior. Wolf learned of the blues early in his life; Charley Patton and Willie Brown, in particular, often played plantation picnics and area juke joints that Wolf frequented. After Wolf picked up the guitar, he began playing those same places. Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, Wolf tilled the land on his father’s farm during the week and on weekends sang the blues. He often played guitar and harmonica simultaneously, using a harmonica rack to keep the instrument close to his mouth, and, on occasion, he shared performance time with Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and Tommy Johnson, as well as Patton and Brown.

Wolf served in the army during World War II. When he returned to Mississippi in 1945, he resumed farming and performing blues locally. But Wolf itched for an opportunity to record and take his blues beyond the Delta. In 1948 he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, and put together a band that, at different times, included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson, and secured a slot on local radio station KWEM playing blues and endorsing agriculture equipment.

Ike Turner, at the time a record scout for Memphis producer Sam Phillips, heard Howlin’ Wolf and recommended that Phillips record Wolf. Wolf went into the studio with Phillips in 1951 and recorded two songs, “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years”. The tunes were leased to Chess Records, who released them in 1952.

Wolf cut other material for Phillips, which Phillips farmed out to Chess and RPM (a subsidiary of Modern Records). A grapple for the rights to Wolf’s best sides was eventually won by Chess. In 1953 Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago and called the city home for the rest of his life. Almost at once he began to compete with Chess’s mainstay, Muddy Waters, for the songs of Willie Dixon, whose prolific output kept Waters and other bluesmen on the Chess roster well stocked with material. From Dixon, Wolf got and recorded classics like “Spoonful”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Evil”, “Back Door Man”, and “I Ain’t Superstitious”. Although Wolf wasn’t considered a great blues composer, he wrote “Moanin’ at Midnight”, “Smokestack Lightning”, and “Killing Floor”, as well as a number of other tunes.

The competition between Wolf and Waters extended beyond Dixon’s songs and remained with them into the ’60s and ’70s. Wolf was a suspicious man who seemed to measure people by how threatening they were to him. Like Waters, Wolf was also a proud man who found it hard to shake hands with his chief rival. Some blues historians have suggested that the competition that existed between them actually forced both Waters and Wolf to rise to great blues heights.

In the early ’60s, Wolf played overseas with the American Blues Festival package and regularly performed in noted Chicago clubs. In 1965 he appeared on the American rock television show “Shindig” with the Rolling Stones. Throughout the rest of the decade, Wolf strengthened his ties with rock, culminating with a rock-sounding album released in 1969 called The Howlin’ Wolf Album, followed by another, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, recorded in England in 1970 with guitarist Eric Clapton, bass player Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and other British rock stalwarts.

By the early ’70s Howlin’ Wolf was beginning to slow down. He had already suffered a heart attack, and an auto accident in 1970 caused irreparable damage to his kidney and necessitated frequent dialysis treatments. Despite ill health, Howlin’ Wolf continued to record and perform. In 1972 he recorded a live album, Live and Cookin’ At Alice ‘s Revisited, at the Chicago club. He also cut a second “London” album, London Revisited, with Muddy Waters, and another studio album, Back Door Wolf, which included the songs “Watergate Blues” and the autobiographical “Moving”. Wolf ‘s last performance was in Chicago with B.B. King in November of 1975. Two months later he died of kidney failure. Howlin’ Wolf was inducted into Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1995 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his hometown of West Point, Mississippi. The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society was formed in West Point 1996, largely through the efforts of Dr. Joe Stephens, and the first annual Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival was held in West Point the same year.

Check out the Wolfman’s bio from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Lillie BurnettLillie Burnett

By: James Janega
The Chicago Tribune
May 18, 2001

There is a saying that opposites attract, and nowhere in the world of Chicago music was that more evident than the marriage between Lillie Burnett, and church-going and sociable South Sider, and her husband, the late blues singer Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett.

Called the First Lady of Chicago Blues, and considered to be one of the few people who could make even the most recalcitrant blues musician behave like a gentleman, Mrs. Burnett, 75, died of congestive heart failure Friday, May 11, in her Hazel Crest home.

“If you didn’t really know she was into the blues arena, you couldn’t figure out she was married to a blues singer,” said Pervis Spann, Blues Jockey at WVON-AM and the winner of the Howlin’ Wolf blues award last year. “She was a thorough, no-nonsense type of individual, like a principal of a school or something of that nature.”

Soft-spoken, articulate and strong-willed, Mrs. Burnett accompanied her husband on many of his travels early in their marriage and represented him at blues festivals, reunions and cultural functions after his death in 1976. Though Mrs. Burnett was a lifelong blues fan, she was never an active participant in the nightly scene. Nevertheless, she still had an impact on those who were.

“She was something of a civilizing influence, I would say”, said Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records. “Everybody knew about her.” Added Spann: “You had to be a gentleman if you were going to be in the room with Howlin’ Wolf and his wife. He was a gentleman with her – and Howlin’ Wolf was not always the most friendly person in the first place.”

Born Lillie Handley in rural Livingston, Ala., Mrs. Burnett was one of seven children. She moved to Chicago shortly after graduating from Sumter County High School in 1943. She took college education courses in Chicago and married Burnett shortly after the two met in the mid-1940s. Though she traveled often with her husband, she focused on church and community activities at home. In the Chatham neighborhood, where she raised their two daughters, she had a backyard garden.

She had long taken part in a social and charity group that called itself “The Sophisticated Ladies”. The group visited hospitals, raised funds for charities, and pooled vacation money for trips abroad.

“She felt life was to be lived well, lived right”, said her daughter, Bettye Kelly. “She had charisma, warmth. She was the type of person who could captivate you. She could hold a conversation with the best of all of them.”

Though Mrs. Burnett prided herself in being able to speak on a variety of topics, Kelly said the spiritual matters and the blues rose above the rest.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Burnett organized annual barbecues in Chicago and the suburbs well-known for bringing the city’s blues community together. In 1997, she was among the group that joined Marie Dixon, widow of blues bassist Willie Dixon, in founding Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation on South Michigan Avenue as an educational resource for blues musicians and their fans. “There’s so much good that’s coming now; it would have been nice if it had come while they were alive,” she told the Tribune at the time.

Then looking at the foundation from her husband’s point of view: “He would have been so proud.”

Mrs. Burnett is also survived by another daughter, Barbra Marks, and two granddaughters.