American bluesman (1910-1976). Real name: Chester Arthur Burnett. Born in rural Mississippi, he had a rough childhood. His parents separated when he was about a year old. He lived with his mother for a number of years, but she threw him out of the house when he refused to work on the farm. He moved in with an uncle, who mistreated him. When he was 13 years old, he walked 85 miles to move in with his father and his large family, where he finally found acceptance. By the time he was a young man, he was 6' 3" tall and sometimes weighed 300 pounds. He claimed to have received his nickname from his grandfather, who warned him about marauding wolves when he was a boy.
He met Charlie Patton in 1930, listening to the most popular blues musician in Mississippi play at a local juke joint. Patton was soon teaching him how to play guitar and how to be a crowd-pleasing showman. In fact, Burnett performed Patton's guitar tricks -- throwing the guitar around his shoulders, up in the air, between his legs, and more -- for the rest of his career. He also learned from other blues players -- Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, and even country singer Jimmie Rodgers. His attempts at Rodgers' yodeling sounded more like howling, which definitely had an impact with crowds. He also learned harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II.
He performed throughout the South during the '30s, playing with Willie Brown, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, and even Robert Johnson. He was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1941 and was stationed at several different bases around the country. He didn't adjust well to military life and was discharged in 1943. He returned to his family, which had recently moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he got back to performing, along with helping out on the farm. He formed a band in 1948 with Willie Johnson, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Junior Parker, Willie Steele, and a pianist who is known today only as "Destruction," which is the best possible name for a guy who plays piano.
After recording with Sam Phillips in 1951, his popularity surged and he was soon picked up by Chess Records, whereupon he moved to Chicago and started a new band. In fact, he'd been so successful as a bluesman, he actually managed to drive a car he owned up to Chicago -- with $4,000 in spending money -- no small feat for anyone in those days, especially for an African-American.
He met his future wife, Lillie, during one of his performances. She wasn't normally a blues fan, but he was smitten the minute he saw her in the club and managed to win her over. After they married, they raised Bettye and Barbara, Lillie's daughters from a previous marriage. Lillie managed most of his finances, but the Wolf went back to school to get his GED (he'd been functionally illiterate clear into his 40s) and to learn accounting to help keep his career on track.
He played with a vast number of first-rate musicians in his new Chicago band -- Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, L.D. McGhee, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie Robinson, and plenty of others. He had a policy of paying musicians well and on time. He even offered health insurance, unemployment insurance and contributions to Social Security.
A big blues revival started in the 1950s and '60s with white teenagers, and the Wolf quickly got to work to turn it to his advantage, touring Europe in 1964, performing on "Shindig!" at the request of the Rolling Stones -- Mick and the boys were scheduled to appear on the show and insisted that he perform as their special guest. He also recorded albums with Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and plenty more. Most of his best known songs came during those two decades, including "Moanin' at Midnight," "Smokestack Lightning," "Back Door Man," "Crawling King Snake," "Killing Floor," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Little Red Rooster," and "Goin' Down Slow." Many of his songs were covered by the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Cream, Jeff Beck, the Blues Project, and the Electric Flag.
Anyone who's heard Howlin' Wolf perform isn't likely to forget it. He was THE powerhouse blues performer. His trademark rasping growl can't be mistaken anywhere, but he was also capable of belting out clear, roof-raising tones. Even for a man as big as he was, his voice sounded even more massive. It was said he was able to drive an audience wild with excitement and terror at the same time.
The Wolf's last album was "The Back Door Wolf" in 1973, which was just 35 minutes long, but recorded with great musicians who'd performed with him for years, like Sumlin, Detroit Junior, Chico Chism, Lafayette "Shorty" Gilbert, and Eddie Shaw. His health had been in decline after several heart attacks and kidney damage from a car accident. In January 1976, he checked into a VA hospital in Hines, Illinois for kidney surgery, but died of complications from the procedure.
HooHa! I beat pingouin to an empty music node!