Reference Entry

Howlin' Wolf

Eric Bennett

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Howlin' Wolf

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Howlin' Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett near West Point, Mississippi, to plantation workers and as a youth worked in the fields himself. Throughout his childhood he was exposed to music from the Baptist church but did not take up the guitar until his teenage years. When Wolf was eighteen he met bluesman Charley Patton, who instructed him in the rudiments of the genre. Another Blues musician, Sonny Boy Williamson, whom Wolf knew as the husband of his half-sister, completed Wolf's education by teaching him to play the harmonica. During the 1920s and 1930s Wolf traveled the South, sometimes performing with blues veterans such as Robert Johnson, sometimes farming to support himself.During World War II Wolf was drafted by the U.S. Army. When he returned from the service in 1945 he settled in West Memphis, Arkansas, where he started a band and secured work with local radio station KWEM. Wolf established himself as a charismatic disc jockey as well as a burgeoning blues star and caught the attention of promoter and musician Ike Turner, who encouraged producer Sam Phillips (later the owner of Sun Records) to record him. Phillips did, and sold the recordings to two different labels, Chicago-based Chess Records and the Bihari Brothers in California. The tremendous popularity of these recordings set the two companies at odds, and, after legal negotiations, Wolf signed with Chess and moved to Chicago in 1953.At Chess Records Wolf met bluesman and songwriter Willie Dixon, who composed many of Wolf's hits, including “Back Door Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “I Ain't Superstitious.” Dixon meanwhile provided material for bluesman Muddy Waters, also of Chess Records, who became Wolf's local rival. Waters and Wolf—with the help of Dixon—at this time defined the Chicago Blues sound, each trying to outdo the other with rawness, intensity, and electric bravura. Wolf's performance style, which had always emulated Charley Patton's dramatic approach, became fully realized. He sang a harsh blend of gravelly bellows and falsetto howls, writhing on stage in the spirit of his music. In addition to Dixon's songs, Wolf popularized a number of his own compositions, including “Smokestack Lightnin',” and “Killing Floor.”Wolf's great popularity sustained him through the blues industry's lull during the late 1950s, and, when British rock ‘n’ rollers such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds began to popularize blues music among white listeners, Wolf experienced a resurgence of fame. He appeared with the Rolling Stones on the television show “Shindig,” and toured Europe and America with the white groups who had appropriated his music. In the late 1960s he recorded The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, joined by white guitarist Eric Clapton as well as members of the Rolling Stones and Ringo Starr of the Beatles.In the 1970s Wolf scaled down his demanding tour schedule due to poor health. In the early 1970s he survived a heart attack and a car accident but kidney damage from the latter killed him in 1976. Wolf gave his last performance with bluesman B. B. King in November 1975. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.See also Baptists; Music, African American.

Reference Entry.  570 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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