Reference Entry

Howlin' Wolf

Mark Steven Maulucci

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Howlin' Wolf

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blues singer and musician, was born Chester Arthur Burnett to Leon “Dock” Burnett, a farm laborer, and Gertrude Jones in White Station, Mississippi. Gertrude's father was Native American, and it was apparently he who gave the nickname “Wolf” to his grandson. Dock had been doing farm work in the Delta every spring, and he left the family and moved there permanently when Chester was a year old. Chester sang with his mother in church. A religious fanatic, Gertrude showed signs of mental instability, often singing and attempting to sell original spirituals in the streets. She cast out her son when he was just ten years old. The young Chester trudged miles over frozen ground with only burlap to cover his bare feet and eventually reached the home of his great-uncle, Will Young. Young already had an extended family residing with him, and he put the large boy to work for long, hard hours on the family farm. After three years Chester fled the constant whippings and neglect to find his father.Chester moved in with his father's family on the Young and Morrow Plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi, near the Will Dockery Plantation. Dock Burnett had remarried, and the presence of an extended family provided a nurturing environment for his oldest son. After a good crop in 1928, Dock bought his son a guitar. It was on the Dockery Plantation that Chester first heard and met Charley Patton, who has been called the father of the Delta blues. Patton took the young Wolf under his wing and shared his knowledge of different guitar tunings and slide guitar techniques. Patton employed a strong and percussive guitar attack, virtually reinventing 4/4 time with his emphasis on the second and fourth beats; people came from miles around to see and hear him perform. Known for his guitar showmanship, Patton played the guitar behind his neck and between his legs, and he threw it up in the air and caught it, never missing a beat. Wolf picked up Patton's guitar tricks and developed many others of his own. Patton sang in a rough, raspy voice, as did many of the evangelical preachers of the time. Wolf incorporated this into his vocal stylings and used techniques similar to those of the various throat singers around the world who sing more than one note at a time.In 1933 Wolf's family moved across the river to Arkansas to escape the harshness of Mississippi and eventually settled on the smaller Phillips Plantation north of Parkin, on the Saint Francis River. Wolf traveled the Delta during the 1930s, and he sang and played guitar often in the company of such notables as Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson). It was Miller who taught Wolf how to play harmonica. Wolf tried out many nicknames, such as John D. and Big Foot Chester, before he settled exclusively on Howlin' Wolf. He returned every spring to help his father plow, and he worked at farming much of the time. In 1939 Wolf and his girlfriend Elven Frazier had a son, Floyd.Wolf was drafted into the army in 1941 and stationed in Seattle. His time in the army was the low point in his life. He developed a nervous condition because of his near illiteracy, and he had difficulties adapting to army discipline. He was honorably discharged in 1943, and his veteran's status served him well later in life when he could receive dialysis at Veterans Administration hospitals across the country while touring.Wolf returned to farming and sang and played at night. He married Katie Mae Johnson in 1947, and he brought his son Floyd to live with him and his wife. In 1948 Wolf and his family moved to West Memphis, Arkansas. Thousands of African Americans were migrating out of the Delta, put out of work by mechanical harvesters. Many moved north to Chicago and Detroit.Technological modernization was also beginning to affect music. As Muddy Waters was electrifying the blues in Chicago, Wolf began doing the same in West Memphis. Wolf formed a band with the finest musicians available, with Matt Murphy, Willie Johnson, and occasionally Pat Hare on guitars, Junior Parker and James Cotton on harmonica, Ike Turner on piano, and Willie Steele on drums, frequently augmenting this lineup with saxophones.In 1949 Wolf approached the radio station KWEM in West Memphis about doing a fifteen-minute radio show. He had subbed for Sonny Boy Williamson on his famous King Biscuit Boy radio program on KFFA and recognized the benefits of promoting his upcoming performances. That he went out and procured his own sponsors further demonstrated Wolf's determination. Wolf would work the door at his live performances, and he demanded professionalism from his musicians; he would not tolerate drinking or tardiness. He was known as a tough taskmaster and levied fines for mistakes but also paid salaries and ultimately unemployment compensation for his musicians. At six feet four inches and close to 300 pounds Wolf was an intimidating presence both on and off the stage, but he adopted a paternalistic role toward his band.West Memphis was a bustling boomtown. Whereas Memphis, Tennessee, across the river had a curfew, West Memphis was called a blues Las Vegas, a wild and wooly place with music and gambling all night. Wolf's band dominated the scene. He wowed crowds throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana with his powerful performances, putting all of his energy into his stage act, often even getting down on all fours and howling like a wolf.The legendary producer Sam Phillips, who later discovered Elvis Presley, heard Wolf on the radio and said, “This is for me. This is where the soul of a man never dies.” Phillips produced “Moaning at Midnight” and “How Many More Years” in 1951, and they were released on Chess Records. By this time Wolf's band was pared down to Willie Johnson on guitar and Willie Steele on drums, with either Ike Turner or Albert Williams on piano. They exploded with a primitive yet modern sound. “Moaning at Midnight” began with an unearthly moan as Willie Johnson played a hypnotic guitar line. Whether they vamped over eerie one-chord grooves or rocked out on jump blues and boogie forms, Johnson's distorted guitar wove sophisticated dominant jazz chords and struck brilliant single-string solos over a rollicking piano and bashing drums. This foundation supported Wolf's powerful vocals and harmonica playing. An accomplished Delta-style guitarist, Wolf all but abandoned his guitar and focused on his vocals and harmonica. His harmonica prowess has long been underrated. Heavily influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson, Wolf used his limited technique to profound advantage. He had a strong vibrato and a rhythmic, tasteful sound that was the perfect complement to his rasping, commanding voice.Competing for Wolf's recording output with the Modern and RPM Record labels, Leonard Chess drove to Memphis and persuaded Wolf to move to Chicago. The huge city was a hotbed of the blues, with most of the city's African Americans living on the South and West sides. Wolf took great pride in driving his own car to Chicago with cash in his pocket, something that many of his predecessors—including Muddy Waters, who barely scraped together enough money for the train fare to move north—had not been able to do. Wolf's move was at a great sacrifice, however, because neither his band nor his family accompanied him. His wife died of cancer soon afterward. Willie Johnson and the piano player Hosea Kennard eventually joined Wolf, who sent for the young West Memphis guitarist Hubert Sumlin to join him. Except for a short stint with Muddy Waters, Sumlin stayed in Wolf's band until Wolf died. For twenty-five years they had a close, though often tempestuous, father-son relationship, and Sumlin was Wolf's most sympathetic accompanist.Wolf's reputation and records preceded him to Chicago, and though Waters helped Wolf get established, the two became arch competitors vying for top dog in Chicago blues. They both enjoyed big hits with songs written by Willie Dixon, who would get one of them interested in a particular song by claiming that it was meant for the other. Wolf recorded a string of hits, including “No Place to Go,” “Evil,” his first Dixon song, and his masterpiece “Smokestack Lightning,” a stark, desperate plea for a train to stop and let him ride. Wolf knew what he was singing about. Many of the repetitive themes in his songs, such as women doing him wrong, money or the lack thereof, and having no place to go, were no doubt formed by his early abandonment by his mother. Wolf was cautious and suspicious for the rest of his days.Though the blues started to fall from favor among young African Americans, Wolf continued to thrive with his constant performances in Chicago clubs and tours around the United States and Europe. He enjoyed a resurgence of hit records in the early 1960s, mostly penned by Willie Dixon. “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful,” “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy,” and “Little Red Rooster” remain blues standards. The Rolling Stones recorded “Little Red Rooster” and insisted that Wolf appear along with them on the popular television show Shindig in 1965.Wolf took great pride in improving himself, and he studied music and attended night school to advance his reading and writing. He married Lillie Handley in 1963 and relished his home life. He was a good husband and stepfather to Lillie's two daughters, and unlike many of his fellow bluesmen he handled his money wisely. His neglect of his own son, Floyd, was ironic considering his own earlier experiences.In addition to clubs Wolf performed at many colleges and festivals, including the Newport Jazz Festival and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. In 1970 he recorded The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions in England, accompanied by Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. The record succeeded both musically and commercially and introduced him to many white fans.Though plagued by health problems in his later years, Wolf continued to perform until he died. He could no longer roam the stage, crawl across the floor, or play much harmonica, but he continued to put his all into every song that he sang. A larger-than-life bluesman and a one-of-a-kind performer, Wolf provided a link between the stark music of the Mississippi Delta and modern music and thereby helped lay the foundations of rock and roll.

Reference Entry.  1795 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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