Reference Entry

Howlin' Wolf

Emmett P. Tracy

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Howlin' Wolf

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musician, songwriter, and blues guitarist. Born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station, Mississippi, to Leon “Dock” Burnett and Gertrude Jones Burnett, Howlin' Wolf grew up in rural Mississippi before hosting a popular Memphis radio show and quickly becoming one of the most spectacular and visible (standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds) forces of blues music.Howlin' Wolf spent most of his early life sharecropping on farms throughout central Mississippi. He earned the nickname “Wolf” from his maternal grandfather, who threatened to get a wolf on him for killing his grandmother's chickens. By 1920 his parents had divorced, and his mother, half Native American Choctaw, soon sent her only child out to fend for himself. Howlin' Wolf first sought work from an uncle in White Station, but after several harsh beatings, he caught a train and began a life of drifting through towns looking for work.After reconnecting with his father in 1923, Howlin' Wolf began plowing mules on the Young and Morrow plantation along the Quiver River. There he first met Charlie Patton, an original pioneer of Delta blues. Patton, who had first recorded in 1929, was living nearby in Ruleville, and the musical circle of blues that formed around him included Son House, Willie Brown, and Willie Lee Johnson.After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Howlin' Wolf returned to Penton, Mississippi, in 1945. There he farmed and formed a small group of musicians. He quickly became known for his wild, raw, and brilliant stage presence. By 1948 his talent had landed him a job hosting a radio show on West Memphis's station KWEM. Both the show and Howlin' Wolf became a huge hit.In 1950 Chess Records offered Howlin' Wolf a chance to make his first phonograph recording. He cut two tracks, “How Many More Years” and “Moanin' at Midnight,” in Memphis. The latter track became one of the largest selling singles of its time.By 1951 Chess and a rival company, RPM, were fighting over rights to Howlin' Wolf's music. In 1952 Howlin' Wolf signed an exclusive and lucrative deal with Chess in Chicago and over the next two decades released Moanin' in the Moonlight (1959), Howlin' Wolf (1962), The Real Folk Blues (1966), More Real Folk Blues (1967), Message to the Young (1971), and Back Door Wolf (1973). He collaborated with several musicians throughout his career, including Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Bo Diddley. But in 1956 his session with Herbert Sumlin, Willie Dixon, Earl Phillips, and Hosea Lee Kennard produced what many consider his greatest single recording, “Smokestack Lightnin'.”While sales of records peaked in 1956, Howlin' Wolf's popularity on the Chicago blues circuit continued until his death twenty years later. During the mid 1960s and early 1970s he toured extensively in Europe and the United States, playing Memphis, Mariposa, California, New York City, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Seattle, Detroit, Columbus, and London, England. During this period he recorded an album, The London Sessions, with notable British rock and roll musicians, including members of the Rolling Stones.But what made Howlin' Wolf so recognizable, his size and energy, eventually killed him. Plagued by kidney disease, he became dependent on dialysis treatment and spent the last ten years of his life fighting the disease. He was known to endure the exhausting treatment and still play a full show. Howlin' Wolf died at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Chicago.

Reference Entry.  665 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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