The Wolf is at your door

January 10th, marks the anniversary of the death of one of our favorite musicians; a GIANT of the blues and one of the most original and striking vocalists/performers in all American music: Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf. We thought we’d look back on Wolf’s life with a few of his greatest songs.

EARLY LIFE: 1910-1948

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hester Arthur Burnett was born on June 10, 1910 to Gertrude and Dock Burnett in White Station, Mississippi. He got along fine with his father, but his parents didn’t, and they split when Chester was only a year old (they married on November 20, 1909). Chester claims he was three when his maternal grandfather nicknamed him “Wolf”. “I was bad about getting my grandmother’s little chicks,” he once said.

Every time I’d get one I didn’t have enough sense to just hold him – I’d squeeze him and kill him. So I got so bad about it they told me they was going to have to put the wolf on me. Scared me up like that. So everybody else went to calling me the Wolf. I was real young.

One day his grandfather came home with a wolf that he’d just shot. Chester thought it was a dog, but his grandfather assured him it was a wolf and told him the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf.

And me being just a kid I’d believe what he say. And it got to where everybody called me Wolf if I’d do some misdemeanor, you see, and I’d run and hide under the bed and they’d howl after me. That was where my name started. I’ve always been the wolf.

[pullquote-left]While still a young boy, his mother sent him away[/pullquote-left] While still a young boy, his mother sent him away. No one knows for sure why, but it may have been a combination of Chester’s love for, and wanting to perform, the blues (i.e. “the Devil’s music”), not wanting to work in the fields picking cotton for 15 cents a day, or maybe because a man his mother got involved with didn’t want him around. Whatever the reason(s), Wolf left, with his mother telling him not to come back. He appeared at the home of his great uncle, Will Young – his father’s mother’s brother.

Will was viscious and had no patience for people, especially children (Wolf’s retarted aunt and her brother Gaddis plus an unrelated girl whom the Youngs took in as a toddler when the flu epidemic of 1918 killed her mother, sister and two brothers, were all living under Will Young’s roof). Tired of being severely beaten with a bullwhip for making “mistakes” and made to sit by himself during meals, Chester left the Young household for good when he was thirteen; hopping a train that took him deep into the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

[pullquote-left]In 1923 Wolf met up with his father Dock[/pullquote-left]In 1923, at the age of 13, Wolf met up with his father, Dock, who at this point had a new wife, Ivory Crowley. Dock took him in and soon put him to work on the farm, where he fixed fences, picked cotton, pulled corn and worked a plow behind a team of mules. Wolf claims that his father got him his first guitar in “1928, the fifteenth day of January”. His interest in the guitar was no doubt inspired upon hearing the first Delta blues singer-guitarist we can put a name to: the great Charley Patton, who lived nearby on the Dockery plantation. Patton was already well-known throughout the Delta region for roughly two decades before making his recording debut in 1929. While it was Patton who inspired – and gave guitar lessons to – young Chester, it was Sonny Boy Williamson – Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy (the first one, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, was born in 1914 and was stabbed to death in 194 – who inspired Wolf to learn the harmonica.

Throughout the 1930s, Wolf would absorb what he could from various bluesmen and women, be it in person or on record: Dick Bankston, Jim Holloway, Long Nathan Scott, the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leroy Carr, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson and the white country great Jimmie Rodgers, aka “The Singing Brakeman,” just to name a few. It was also during the 1930s that Wolf, gaining more confidence, traveled the South, performing his blues in Arkansas, West Memphis, Alabama, Louisiana and Kentucky.
On April 9, 1941, Wolf joined the army, but it didn’t last. It’s been said that perhaps the army’s strict ways reminded Wolf too much of his uncle Will Young. Wolf soon suffered from extreme nervousness and dizziness and was sent to a military hospital near Portland, Oregon. He was discharged in late 1943. He went back to his father’s place, who at this time was living in Arkansas, and farming, while courting various women. On May 3, 1947, Wolf married Katie Mae Johnson and fathered a boy named Floyd, who was Wolf’s first and only child from a previous relationship.

Sometime during the late ’40s, Wolf’s mother, Gertrude, discovered that her son was living nearby and paid him a visit. She disapproved of her son singing the “the Devil’s music” and strongly felt that he should sing for God and only for God. He told her he was a grown man and could live his life the way he wanted to, and that was the end of that – for a while, that is. Wolf wouldn’t see his mother again until the early ’70s.

In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis in search of a better life.

He, like everyone else, soaked up the post World War II sounds of T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, formed his first band – the House Rockers – and would soon end up at the front door of the Memphis Recording Service.

LIFE & MUSIC: 1951-1976

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1950, Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, recording anything, anytime, anywhere. Many people don’t realize that before Phillips discovered and recorded folks like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, he recorded black blues musicians: B.B. King, Sleepy John Estes, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and Joe Hill Louis, to name just a few [well worth owning is the 8-CD box set ‘Sun Records The Blues Years: 1950-1958,’ issued by the UK’s Charly Records, if you can find it.]

Howlin'_Wolf_1972 public domainIn early 1951, Phillips heard Wolf on radio station KWEM in West Memphis and said to himself, “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.” He got word to Wolf that he wanted to record him, but told him to come by at his own convenience. Wolf arrived and the two only talked. A few days later, Wolf arrived with his band and cut two demo discs: “How Many More Years” and “Baby Ride With Me”. At this point in time, Phillips was leasing his recordings to Chess Records in Chicago, operated by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, and Modern/RPM Records in Los Angeles, operated by the Bihari Brothers. Phillips sent the demos to Chess and, impressed, told Sam to set up a full-blown session. He did. Wolf arrived with his band – Willie Steele on drums and Willie Johnson on guitar – in either May or August 1951. Only two sides were recorded, but resulted in the two sides that would make up Wolf’s first record: “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years”.

The record was released in September 1951 as Chess 78 1479 and was a double-sided hit. From November 17 to December 1, the record was a #1 smash in Dallas and in the next few months, the record charted in Atlanta, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Newark and Louisiana. The Wolf had arrived.

But there was a problem:

Leonard Chess was so excited by the sales of “Moaning At Midnight” b/w “How Many More Years” that he signed Wolf to what was believed to be an exclusive contract. Ike Turner was Modern/RPM’s Memphis talent scout who often sat in with Wolf and his band, and told the Bihari brothers that they should record Wolf, so they signed Wolf to a contract. But in order to discuss how this matter was settled, we need to back up a bit and look at what seems like a different topic altogether.

Earlier in the year, on March 5, 1951, Sam Phillips recorded Ike Turner and his Kings Of Rhythm and their tune “Rocket 88”. The song went on to become the biggest R&B hit of 1951 and, according to many experts, the “first rock ‘n’ roll record”. Sam had sent the recording to Chess Records, which caused a rift between Sam and the Biharis since they missed out on a hit, and Sam and Ike Turner, since the record was credited to “Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats,” not Ike Turner and His Kings Of Rhythm (Brenston was Turner’s underraged sax player who belted out “Rocket 88″‘s lyrics). So, the Biharis recorded Wolf in West Memphis at station KWEM in September 1951, resulting in four sides of which only two were issued at the time: “Morning At Midnight” (a recreation of “Moaning At Midnight”) and “Riding In The Moonlight” (a recreation of “Baby Ride With Me”). Wolf had two more sessions with RPM: October 2, 1951 and February 12, 1952, resulting in a total of 15 titles. These sides, along with 3 bonus tracks, are available on the CD ‘Moanin’ At Midnight: The Memphis Recordings’.

The Chess-RPM debate with Wolf was finally resolved when it was decided that the Chess brothers keep Wolf and the Biharis keep blues singer/pianist Rosco Gordon. To cut out the middle man, Sam Phillips started his own record label in 1952: Sun Records. Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago and recorded for Chess until 1973 – three years before his death. Katie Mae, his first wife, stayed in West Memphis and died of cancer in the mid-’50s.

One of the great partnerships in the blues was that of guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf. Sumlin made his recording debut at Wolf’s first Chess session in March 1954 and stayed by Wolf’s side until the mid 1970s. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page once stated,

“I loved Hubert Sumlin. And what a compliment he was to Howlin’ Wolf’s voice. He always played the right thing at the right time. Perfect.”

Hubert Sumlin, now 74, continues to perform and tour all over the world.

Wolf recorded many classics for Chess: “The Red Rooster,” “Who’s Been Talkin’,” “Spoonful,” “Sitting On Top Of The World” (first recorded in 1930 by one of Wolf’s early influences: the Mississippi Sheiks), “Back Door Man” (a back door man is a guy who makes love to a married woman and exits the house through the back door while the husband comes through the front door…. eat yer hearts out, rappers), “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Evil,” “No Place To Go,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Down In The Bottom,” “Killing Floor,” “Hidden Charms,” “Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy” and “Built For Comfort,” to name a few. These songs became staples in the repertoires of countless sixties artists, both American and British: “The Red Rooster” was covered by both Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones, “Sitting On Top Of The World” (while already a blues classic, came to be covered by Cream not once but twice thanks to Wolf’s 1957 version), “Back Door Man” was covered by the Doors, “I Ain’t Superstitious” was covered by the Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart handling the vocal duties), “No Place To Go” was covered by Fleetwood Mac, “Killing Floor” was covered by guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s band Electric Flag and by Led Zeppelin, who changed the title to “The Lemon Song” [Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” was inspired by Wolf’s “How Many More Years”]. In the ’80s, the Wolf lived on through Robert Cray, who covered Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin'” while Stevie Ray Vaughan covered “Tell Me,” “Commit A Crime,” “Shake For Me” and “You’ll Be Mine”.


Many of these songs were written by Willie Dixon, the great bassist, vocalist and composer. Not only did Dixon write songs for Wolf, he also wrote for Otis Rush, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Eddie Boyd, and Wolf’s only real rival on the Chicago blues scene: Muddy Waters. Dixon also played bass on countless sessions, including those by Chuck Berry and the Moonglows – that’s Dixon’s bass on 1955’s “Sincerely” for all of you doo-wop fans out there!

Wolf went over to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival during the 1960s, played countless blues festivals here in the States, made an appearance on ‘Shindig’ in 1965 with the Rolling Stones sitting at his feet, and in 1970 recorded the album ‘The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions’ featuring Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Ian Stewart and Steve Winwood: a much better – and reasonable – offering to young rock fans at the time (the album was released in 1971) as opposed to drenching Wolf and a handful of his classics in the psychedelic rock sounds that were so popular a few years earlier. The resulting LP, ‘The Howlin’ Wolf Album,’ released in 1968, is musically fine for its era but certainly does not fit Wolf to any extent of the imagination. Chess did the same thing to Muddy Waters that year, which resulted in the embarrassing ‘Electric Mud’ album.

[pullquote-left]On May 2 1971 Wolf had a heart attack[/pullquote-left]On May 2, 1971 – a year to the day that the London Howlin’ Wolf sessions began – Wolf had a heart attack. It was also discovered that his kidneys were in poor shape, thus Wolf needed hemodialysis treaments once a week in order to purify his blood. His doctors wanted him to stop performing all together but he refused. Instead he pushed himself harder, continuing to play gigs and record more albums.

On January 26, 1972, Wolf recorded the ‘Live And Cookin’ At Alice’s Revisited’ album on Chicago’s North Side: his only official live album.

During this time he opened for rock bands, including a stint opening for Alice Cooper in 1972. In fact, Wolf had a minor heart attack towards the end of Alice Cooper’s set, but recovered in time to put on quite a powerful show – a whole show, at that – despite eager chants for Alice Cooper and the multiple health problems he was experiencing.

By 1973, Wolf was receiving dialysis three times a week at home from his wife Lillie (Wolf met her while performing at Sylvio’s, a Chicago blues club, in 1957. The two lived together for seven years before marrying on March 14, 1964) and his road manager, sax man Eddie Shaw, was booking gigs only when a local hospital was available to give Wolf his treatments. On a more positive note, Wolf played Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in May 1973, where opening acts included Bonnie Raitt and two then-unknowns: Bruce Springsteen and George Thorogood, the latter playing solo with an acoustic guitar. 1973 also saw the release of what would be Wolf’s last album on Chess: ‘Back Door Wolf’. He was through with recording, but he continued to play gigs.


[pullquote-left]At this time, Wolf wondered why, with so many white rock bands making millions with his songs, he wasn’t getting more money?[/pullquote-left] In 1974, he talked to his wife and Eddie Shaw and they agreed that Wolf was being exploited by the music industry. He decided to sue Chess and their publishing firm, ARC.

In November 1975, Wolf played his last gigs, which took place at the Chicago Amphitheater. A few weeks later, on November 17, Wolf entered the hospital due to fatigue. They couldn’t find anything wrong with him and he stayed for weeks. His condition improved and eventually he went home, but soon his condition worsened. On January 7, 1976, Wolf was told he had a brain tumor. The next day, Wolf was on the operating table. [pullquote-right]His heart stopped during the procedure and eventually the machines were removed. Wolf died at 3:00 pm on January 10th 1976.[/pullquote-right]His heart stopped during the procedure and eventually the machines were removed. Wolf died at 3:00 pm on January 10th. Sadly, Wolf didn’t live to enjoy the results of the lawsuit. Instead, Lillie settled with ARC and Chess after Wolf’s death for an undisclosed sum and ARC kept the publishing rights to Wolf’s songs.

Wolf’s music continues to thrive through blues fans worldwide and through the interpretations of his songs by other, more mainstream acts, and most – if not all – of Wolf’s recordings are available on CD. Within the last few years, three DVDs were released of the American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe, featuring Wolf in addition to T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, Skip James, Son House, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Otis Rush, and a few others, all shot in beautiful black & white footage performing complete songs. In 2003, ‘The Howlin’ Wolf Story’ was released on DVD to critical acclaim and in 2004, the book ‘Moanin’ At Midnight: The Life And Times Of Howlin’ Wolf’ by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman hit the shelves. The book provided much of the information for this essay.

Wolf was that rare musician who went to night school in order to improve himself, treated his band members fairly financially, even paying for their insurance (!) and, unlike Muddy Waters and so many other blues musicians, was loyal to his wife.

Obviously I couldn’t tell you every detail about the Wolf, but hopefully I’ve inspired you to seek out more information on Wolf’s life and music. If I haven’t, I can at least say that I enjoyed putting this series together.

Attached for your listening pleasure – or displeasure – are the following songs:
“Back Door Man,” recorded in June 1960.
“Smokestack Lightning,” recorded in January 1956.
“Spoonful,” recorded in June 1960.
And finally…..
“I Ain’t Superstitious,” recorded in December 1961.

Copyright 2006, JacoFan Music. All Rights Reserved.

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