HOWLIN' WOLF (CHESTER BURNETT) - Also known as "Big Foot, 'Bull Cow", born Chester Arthur Burnett had been a farmer, blues singer, and soldier by the time he first recorded. His adopted nickname, though far from original, fittem him with made-to-measure precision.
Born in West Point, Clay County, Mississippi, on June 10, 1910, Burnett developed a fondness for the music of the primordial Delta bluesman Charley Patton, who lived near the Burnett family after they moved to Ruleville, Mississippi.
His father was Dock Burnett (He wasn't no blues singer, but he was a great country ballplayer) and his mother was Gertrude, he was one of 6 children and he frequently sang as a child in the Life Board Baptist Church in Aberdeen, Mississippi. He grew up listening to Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, and the Jackson school of Tommy Johnson with its delicate falsetto moan, in the midst of a Mississippi blues tradition.
In 1923, Burnett moved to the Young and Myers Plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi to work outside in music. In 1928 to 1930s he frequently worked on the local dances, suppers, Saturday-night hops, fish fries, juke joints and the street in the area of Drew, Cleveland, Penton, West Point, and Ruleville, Mississippi. In 1933, Burnett moved to the Nat Phillips Plantation in Twist, Arkansas to work outside of music, but he frequently worked in the local juke joints such as Will Weller's Place, Will Smith's Place, Vandy Cobb's Place as well as frolics and in the streets in Hughes, Arkansas.
During the 1930s Burnett married Willie Brown's sister and his second wife was Lillie Handley until his death. Chester Burnett had 4 children. His half-sister, Mary, was married with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller) circa 1937. His nickname "Howling Wolf" was given him as a child for his pranks (or) assumed pseudonym from John "Funny Papa" Smith's hit song of the same name during early 1930s.
"My grandfather give me the name, 'fore he died, John Jones", recalled Howlin' Wolf. "He used to sit down and tell me tall stories about what the wolf would do, y'know, cos I was a bad boy. I was always in devilment. So he told me the story about what the wolf done to Little Red Riding Hood. Every time the girl'd ask him, 'Mr Wolf, what makes your teeth so big??' he said, 'What makes your eyes so red??' "The better I can see you, my dear".
"And then they finally killed a wolf, and drove it up to the house, and I told 'em was a dog. He said, 'No, that's a wolf'. I said, 'What's a wolf do?'. He said, "Howl, y'know. Whoo-oo-oo'. So I got afraid of the wolf and every time I'd kill some of my mother's chickens she'd go "Whoo-oo-oo", and that scared me and made me mad. And that's how they called me Wolf, and I gets mad about this. So they just kept on calling me Wolf and so I got so I didn't care what they called me. But first I was afraid of the wolf, y'know".
"I was three years old when they started calling me Wolf. You know how it is, when people find out you get mad about something they always slip that in. The Wolf, it upset me. I didn't know it was going to be a great name for me".
Howlin' Wolf is influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller) and he influenced artists as Woodrow Adams, Butterfield Blues Band, Cream, John Fogerty, Birmingham Jones, Floyd Jones, Little Wolf, John Littlejohn, the Rolling Stones, Sidney Semiens, Johnny Shines, The Tail Dragger (James Jones), Amos Wells Jr., Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds.
Occasional he toured with Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller), with Texas Alexander and others working in juke joints through the states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi from the mid-1930s. In 1938, Chester Burnett worked with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Baby Boy Warren and others on Beale Street and the Church Park (WC Handy Park) in Memphis, Tennessee. From 1939 to 1940, Burnett worked on Dooley Square in Tunica, Mississippi.
After four years in the service, between 1941 and 1945, Burnett settled in Twist, Arkansas to work outside of music as a farmer. In 1946, he returned to continue farming near Penlon, Mississippi, and formed his own band to work in the juke joints of Lake Cummings, Mississippi. In 1948 before deciding to move to West Memphis, Arkansas. Soon after coming to West Memphis, Wolf secured steady work playing whorehouses, black baseball parks, and other spots that catered to country folk in search of a little diversion. The feral energy with which he sang added a new dimension to the traditional Delta blues upon which he based his style. Wolf landed a spot on KWEM in 1950. Monday through Saturday, he appeared between 4:45 and 5:00 p.m., lacing his blues with pitches for grain and fertilizer. In his fortieth year, he became a hot item among the rural blacks around Memphis. He worked with his own group in Jukes and toured with his own group barrelhouses, smallclubs through the South and appeared as disc jockey, singer, producer, and advertising salesman for KWEM-radio in West Memphis, Arkansas.
"A disc jockey from West Memphis told me about Wolf's show", recalled Sam Phillips to Robert Palmer. "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies". "Then the Wolf came to the studio and he was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I've ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the french harp and I tell you, the greatest sight you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what it would be worth to see the fervour in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up, you'd see the veins on his neck and, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul!".
From 1951 to 1953, Chester Burnett recorded for Sam Phillip's, Memphis Recording Service in Memphis, Tennessee were his recordings where released to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. A 1951 session with the Wolf playing harmonica as well as singing, guitarist Willie Johnson, drummer Willie Steel and on the b-side, Albert Williams or Ike Turner on piano, produced the single "Moanin' At Midnight"/"How Many More Years". This at least is how discographies usually chart this session, but harmonica player James Cotton, who was also to journey up to Chicago in the 1950s but who was at this time playing with the Wolf in Memphis, and was certainly present on later sessions, recalled in conversation with Paul Trynka being in on the Wolf's recording career from the start.
Later Howlin' Wolf in Chicago, the Chess brothers tried to recreate the sound that Sam Phillips formulated, even to the point of re-recordings some of the unissued titles from Wolf's Memphis sessions. After a few missed cues, Wolf evolved a slightly modified sound in Chicago for Chess, and eventually brought Willie Johnson to join him. He became one of the seminal figures in postwar blues, which ensured that he spent his last years touring college campuses, where he looked strangely out of place amid a sea of freshly scrubbed, young white faces.
Chester Burnett recorded for the RPM label in Memphis, in 1952 appeared on the weekly show on KXJK-radio in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved in 1952 to Chicago, Illinois to work as s single in the 708 Club and other bars and recorded for the Chess label. He worked at the Rock Bottom Club in Chicago in 1953, the Club Zanzibar in Chicago in 1953 to 1954, worked at the Silkhairs Club in West Memphis, Arkansas in circa 1954, at the Hippodrome Ballroom in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1956, Burnett moved back to Chicago and worked at the Sylvio's Lounge and formed his own band for working at the 708 Club in Chicago, worked at the Big Squeeze Club, Chicago in 1959, the Pepper's, Chicago in 1959, and toured with the American Blues Festival for working on concert dates through England and Europe from 1961 to 1964 (portions of his 1964 Musikhalle concert in Hamburg, West Germany are released on the Fontana label. He worked at the First International Jazz Festival in Washington, DC., in 1962 and worked frequently and appeared on the Big Bill Hill Show for radio WOPA in Oak Park, Illinois, and extensive residency at the Sylvio's Lounge in Chicago during 1963 to 1968.
From 1963 to 1965, Burnett worked at the Copa Cabana Club, Chicago (portions released on the Chess label. In 1964 he appeared on the International Jazz Jamboree at the Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw, Poland, appeared at the Shinding TV-show for ABC-TV in 1965, worked at the Pepper's in Chicago and worked at the Club 47, Chicago in 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island (portions shown in the film "Festival), appeared in Big John's Bar in Chicago, 1966, Cafe A-Go-Go in New York City, 1967, Mother Blues, Chicago in circa 1966, at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1968, and appeared on the TV-show "For Blacks Only" for the local TV-station in Chicago in 1968.
In 1968 to 1969, Burnett appeared at the Club Key Largo, Chicago, and at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Canada, at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, the Scene in New York City, appeared on the local show for WNUR-FM-radio in Evanston, Illinois. In 1969, Chester Burnett toured in England and worked on club concert dates and recorded for the Chess label in London, England.
Back in the United States, Burnett worked at the Electric Circus in New York City, toured on and worked on club dates on the West Coast, worked at the State University of New York in Buffalo, New Yersey, at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan 1969 through 1970. He also appeared at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in 1969 and appeared at the Flamingo Lounge in Chicago during 1969, The Colonial Tavern in Chicago, The Riviera in Chicago, the Quiet Knight in Chicago, the Sutherland Hotel Lounge in Chicago, the Washington Blues Festival, Howard University, Washington, DC., during 1970.
He frequently worked at the Cellar in Chicago, Big Duke's Blue Flame Lounge in Chicago during the early 1970s. In 1971, Howlin' Wolf appeared in the film "Wolf", worked at the Star Dust in Chicago, and the Hunter College in New York City in 1971. Appeared at the Notre Dame Blues Festival in South Bend, Indiana, at the Alice's Revisited in Chicago in 1972 (portion released for the Chess label).
In 1972, Burnett appeared on the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada, at the Esquire Showbar in Montreal, Canada. In 1973, he also performed at the Joe Place's, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Municipal Auditorium, New Orleans, Max's Kansas City in New York City, at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.
Through 1973 to 1975, he appeared and recorded for, El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto, Canada, recorded for Chess in Chicago, appeared and worked for Grendel's Lair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the High Capparral in Chicago, the Pepper's Hideout in Chicago, Sandy's Concert Club in Boston, Massachusetts, the International Blues Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, at Easter Concert in Cocoa Beach in Florida, the Egress in Vancouver, Canada, the Urban Blues Festival, Auditorium Theater in Chicago, and recorded for the Chess label in London, England.
From 1974 to 1975, Chester Burnett appeared and worked at the Concert Club in Montreal, Canada, the Richard's Club in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Sting in Chicago, with B.B. King at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, at the University of Chicago Circle Campus in Chicago, the New 1815 Club in Chicago, the Eddie Shaw's Place (old New 1815 Club) in Chicago all in 1975. Chester Burnett awarded honourary as Doctor of Arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois in 1972, and he won the Montreux Festival Award for his album "Back Door Wolf" (Chess 50045) in 1975.
In 1975 inactive in the music Chester Burnett entered Veterans Administration Hospital in Chicago, where he was operated on cancer. On January 10, 1976, Chester Burnett died of cancer at Hines, Illinois. Burnett is buried at the Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.
Chester Burnett is one of the major shapers of the electrically amplified modern blues style that has been so dominant an influence on all popular music since his time. Howlin' Wolf's voice, dark, brooding, is vibrantly rich and immediately recognizable, and easily transcended the most banal material, and he is a true artist in every sense of the word.
Talking later about Wolf to biographers James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Sam Phillips said, ''He had such a soulful sound that even though his words were good blues words, he didn't have to say a sound. Like ''Moanin' At Midnight'', it was a everything just stopped. Time stopped. Everything stopped. All you heard was the Wolf''. Phillips often applied retrospective spin to his reminiscenses, but recently discovered correspondence from 1951 shows that Phillips truly saw the specialness in Wolf right away. He got it first. (CE)