Chester A. Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, was one of the biggest of the Chicago bluesmen both literally and figuratively. Today would have been his 105th birthday, here is his story.
Today is June 10th, 2015, but 105 years ago, on June 10th, 1910, a Blues legend was born in White Station, Mississippi. That legend was named Chester Burnett, but to generations of music fans, he is known only as Howlin’ Wolf. The Wolf’s childhood relatively colorful, even by Blues musician standards, as he was thrown out of his house by his mother when he refused to work on their farm. He bounced around with relatives for a while, including an uncle who by today’s standards would definitely be considered abusive, this may account for some of Burnett’s notorious temper issues later in life. He ran away from his uncle, and tracked down his father, who had split up with his mother years earlier.
One of Howlin’ Wolf’s best known songs, Smokestack Lightning. This is the only known filmed performance of the song, featuring Hubert Sumlin on guitar.
Chester Burnett took up singing the Blues, and playing guitar during the 1930’s after meeting legendary Delta Blues singer, Charlie Patton. Patton taught him a number of techniques and they often performed together. Shortly afterwards, he learned to play the harmonica (which in the Blues is known as a “harp”) from Sonny Boy Williamson II (That is read as Sonny Boy Williamson Two, not the second, but that story will have to wait til another day). Burnett continued to perform around the country, mainly in the south, making a name for himself by playing with artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House and Honeyboy Edwards. Blues would remain his profession for the rest of his life, save for a brief stint in the United States Army just prior to WWII.
Another of Wolf’s well known songs, Who Will Be Next.
One of the more interesting, and less well known stories about Howlin’ Wolf is his very brief army career. In 1941, General George C. Marshall, then the Army’s Chief of Staff organized a massive set of military exercises and mock battles known as the “Louisiana Maneuvers”. These were meant to help prepare the US Army in the event that the country was drawn into World War II. These maneuvers also involved future war heroes and famous generals including George S. Patton, Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. Chester Burnett’s role in these exercises was slightly less important to the war effort, as he was a member of the 9th Cavalry Regiment. Cavalry was determined to be useless in the modern style of warfare during this exercise, and as a result, although he wasn’t discharged from the Army until 1943, after the United States entered the war, he avoided any type of deployment due to his limited skill set. Interestingly enough, the 9th Cavalry Regiment were the original “Buffalo Soldiers”. The 9th Regiment was one of the first military units set aside for Black soldiers, and they rose to fame during (unfortunate) battles on the American frontier against Native American tribes. The 9th Regiment was officially disbanded in 1944, making Burnett one of the last United States cavalrymen as well as one of the last “Buffalo Soldiers”.
Fortunately, The Wolf was able to get back to what he was best at, singing the Blues. He spent a few years in and around Memphis, performing in clubs and honing his craft, until he was discovered by Leonard Chess from Chicago. Leonard Chess was the owner of the legendary (and often exploitative) Chess Records, which in the 50’s and 60’s was responsible for the majority of the great Chicago Blues records. Once he reached Chicago, he assembled a new band, including guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who, through his work with Wolf, became known as one of the premier guitar players in Blues. During his time in Chicago, his band’s lineup changed frequently, due to his reputation as a violent drunk and a perfectionist. In his autobiography, When I left Home, Buddy Guy, who was a friend and colleague of Wolf’s explained that, at one point, he was offered the guitarist job in the band, but declined, because of Wolf’s reputation as a bad drunk and his massive 6’6, 300 lb size. He decided that as much as he loved the Wolf’s music, he valued his health more, and politely refused the offer.
Another, more amusing anecdote about Howlin’ Wolf’s temper was also shared by Buddy Guy, again in his autobiography. He was asked to participate in a recording session at Chess Records, after Wolf and Hubert Sumlin got into a fistfight. Sumlin stormed off, and Buddy went down to the studio to fill in.
From Buddy Guy’s When I left Home:
When I get to the studio at 2120 South Michigan, first thing I heard was, “Motherfucker, you standing in the wrong place.” That was the Wolf talking. I didn’t do nothing though, ’cause I didn’t know who he was talking to. “Motherfucker,” he repeated, “did you hear what I said?” “You mean me?” I asked. “Yes, motherfucker. Who else would I mean?” “Well my name’s Buddy, not motherfucker.” “Up in here,” said the Wolf, “everyone’s a motherfucker. Now get closer to the mic.” (When I Left Home, pg. 123-124)
Despite his somewhat cantankerous nature, he was a consummate professional on stage and on tour, and although he was sometimes difficult to work with, he is remembered fondly by friends, colleagues and fans as a good man with a rough attitude.
Chester A. Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, began to suffer from a number of health issues in the late 60’s including heart attacks, and kidney damage following a car accident. In 1976, the Wolf died from complications related to kidney surgery. Throughout his career, Howlin’ Wolf wrote and performed many songs that have become standards, and to this day are covered, recorded and performed by young and old blues artists alike. Songs such as Smokestack Lighting, Killing Floor, Goin’ Down Slow and Backdoor Man along with countless others form a musical legacy as influential and important as any artist in history. His music has stood the test of time, and I believe that his unique voice, songwriting talents and legendary albums will continue to inspire Blues musicians to play for generations to come. Thanks to Howlin’ Wolf’s legacy, a lot of young artists will be next.
Howlin’ Wolf’s song Killing Floor, which was further popularized by the late, great Jimi Hendrix, who often used it to open his live performances.
Sources from this article include:
When I Left Home, By Buddy Guy with David Ritz