Delta bluesman Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most influential and imposing musicians of the post-World War II era, and his later electric Chicago blues — featuring his deep, lupine voice — helped shape the sound of rock & roll. Numerous blues-based rock artists, from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, sang his praises and helped sustain his career throughout the 1960s and beyond.
Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the 21st president, was born on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, a small railroad stop in the state’s hill country between Aberdeen and West Point. At 13, he ran away to live with his father on a cotton plantation in the Delta town of Ruleville. His father bought him a guitar when he was 18, and Burnett began studying the blues with the rural masters, including his half sister’s husband, harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and guitarist and vocalist Charley Patton, Burnett’s biggest single influence.
Burnett’s grandfather had nicknamed him “Wolf” for his rough behavior as a small child, and after apprenticing with Patton around Ruleville in the late Twenties he began playing on street corners in the Thirties under various names including Howlin’ Wolf. He formed his first band, the House Rockers, in Memphis in 1948 with pianist Bill Johnson, lead guitarist Willie Johnson, and drummer Willie Steele. (Later personnel included harmonica players James Cotton and Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner on piano, and guitarist Willie Johnson.)
In 1951 Ike Turner, who also was a freelance talent scout, had Wolf record for Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based Sun Records. Those masters were then leased to Chicago-based Chess Records, and in 1957 one of them, “Moanin’ at Midnight,” became his first R&B hit. In 1952 Wolf moved to Chicago, where his music was well received. Some consider the recordings he made for Chess during the Fifties and Sixties his best. Among them were the 1957 R&B hit “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Spoonful,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Back Door Man,” “Killing Floor,” and “How Many More Years.” His songs, many of them written by Willie Dixon, have been covered by American and English rock acts including the Stones (with whom Wolf appeared on the Shindig! TV show in 1965), the Grateful Dead, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, the Doors, Cream, the Electric Flag, Little Feat, and Led Zeppelin.
Wolf, who stood an imposing six-foot-three and weighed nearly 300 pounds, frequently appeared at blues and rock festivals in the late Sixties and early Seventies. His 1971 album, The London Sessions, featured backup support from Clapton, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman of the Stones. That same year Wolf received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College in Chicago. He lived the last years of his life in Chicago’s crumbling South Side ghetto. He suffered several heart attacks in the early Seventies and received kidney dialysis treatment, but he continued to play occasionally; one of his last concerts was in November 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheatre with B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Little Milton. He entered a hospital in December of that year and died at age 65 on January 10, 1976, of complications from kidney disease.
On his final album in 1973 – 35 years before the election of President Barack Obama – Howlin’ Wolf had predicted that a black man would one day occupy the White House; in “Coon on the Moon,” he sang, “You know, they called us ‘coons,’ said we didn’t have no sense. / You gonna wake up one morning, and a coon’s gonna be the President.” In 1991 Wolf was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.