Howlin' Wolf - Biography



          Sam Phillips, who recorded many a famed blues musician as a studio owner in Memphis in the early ‘50s before his work with the young Elvis Presley at his label Sun Records, memorably told writer Robert Palmer, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”


            Phillips’ oft-quoted recollection has always seemed the perfect measure of Wolf’s art. It expresses the awe one feels when listening to the great bluesman’s music, the power of the music itself, and the dark, almost divine force that Wolf emanated. (As Delta bluesman Johnny Shines put it, “I thought he was a magic man.”) It cannot be said that Wolf was without peer among his generation of Delta-bred blues players – Muddy Waters, his longtime rival, was one – but he was certainly without compare. With Waters, he was one of the principal exponents of the electrified Delta style that became known as “Chicago blues.” He was in every way a larger-than-life figure.


            Like the stories of Waters and B.B. King, Wolf’s tale is one of an uncanny rise from rural poverty and obscurity to international renown. Born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station, Mississippi, near the towns of West Point and Aberdeen, on June 10, 1910, he grew up as a sharecropping farmer, and he in fact didn’t entirely abandon that work until he was nearly 40. Nicknamed “Foot” in acknowledgment of his imposing size, and called “Wolf” by his maternal grandfather, he was an indifferent field hand, and as a boy his devoutly religious mother (with whom Wolf had a distant, tormented relationship for the rest of his life) turned him out of the house. For some years he lived with his abusive great-uncle Will Young.


          Reunited with his father on a Mississippi plantation, young Chester fell under the spell of the itinerant Delta bluesman Charlie Patton, who performed at Will Dockery’s nearby farm. Patton taught him his first guitar chords and supplied the basis for Wolf’s raw, throaty vocal style. Beyond contributing staples like “Pony Blues” (which Wolf later cut as “Saddle My Pony”) and “Spoonful” (retooled years later by Chicago songwriter Willie Dixon) to Wolf’s future repertoire, the blues elder served as a performing example: His extroverted showmanship had a pronounced impact on his young student.


          As a neophyte musician, Wolf also became acquainted with such Delta bluesmen as Son House, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson. He received harmonica tutoring from Alex “Rice” Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson (II). The soaring croon that punctuated his songs -- “Aaah-ooo” – was an amalgam of the yodels deployed on the popular recordings of Drew, Mississippi, blues singer-guitarist Tommy Johnson and the early country performer Jimmie Rodgers, “the Singing Brakeman.”


            Wolf was good for nothing but music. From his late teens through his 20s, he shirked his plowing to entertain in the rowdy juke joints and buckets-of-blood of Mississippi and Arkansas. Reportedly under duress by local planters, he enlisted in the wartime army in 1941. It proved a disaster: Unsuited for the harsh discipline of military service, Wolf suffered what he later characterized as a nervous breakdown while stationed in the Pacific Northwest. He received an early honorable discharge in 1943, and returned to plowing and juking in Mississippi.


            The feral band sound and lycanthropic vocal attack heard on Wolf’s recordings of the ‘50s and ‘60s were fully formed by the late ‘40s. In 1948, as farming opportunities waned with postwar mechanization, Wolf devoted himself full-time to music and moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, a wide-open town across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee.


          There he put together his prototypical electric band, which included at various times guitarists Willie Johnson, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Pat Hare, harmonica players Little Junior Parker and James Cotton, pianist William “Destruction” Johnson, and drummer Willie Steele. The group – loud and ferocious, led by Wolf’s lacerating singing and Johnson’s distorted guitar lines, sometimes incorporating a full horn section – became a prime attraction in the West Memphis clubs; those shows made an impact on such young white Arkansas musicians as Paul Burlison (soon the guitarist for Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio) and Ronnie Hawkins (whose latter-day guitarist Robbie Robertson drew heavily from the Wolf band’s book).


          Wolf didn’t make his first appearance in a recording studio until he was 41 years old, after Sam Phillips heard about him from a disc jockey at KWEM, the West Memphis radio station where Wolf did a daily 15-minute show. Phillips was still a couple of years away from founding Sun Records, which would serve as the primary crucible for ‘50s rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. The former radio engineer was then operating Memphis Recording Service on the Bluff City’s Union Boulevard; he cut and leased tracks like Jackie Brenston’s proto-rock hit “Rocket 88” to independent labels around the country.


          Wolf’s first official session for Phillips in July 1951 resulted in two tracks: the stomping “How Many More Years” and the otherworldly “Moanin’ at Midnight.” Leased to Chess Records – the independent Chicago imprint, run by Polish-born brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, that was the home of Muddy Waters – the numbers became a two-sided R&B hit; “How Many More Years” climbed to No. 4 “Moanin’ at Midnight” to No. 10. These records were notably harder and tougher than the contemporaneous hits emanating from Chess’ Chicago studio, which then still bore a markedly lighter Delta-bred style.


          Alerted about Wolf’s prowess by their regional A&R man Ike Turner, the Los Angeles indie Modern Records also began recording and releasing sides by the West Memphis performer. The Chess brothers quickly moved to put the kibosh on their budding star’s extracurricular activities, trading rights to singer-pianist Rosco Gordon for Wolf’s exclusive services.


         Wolf cut several more pounding, stops-out tracks with Phillips in 1952-53; none was a hit, though some were later released by Chess as the ‘60s blues boom developed on the album More Real Folk Blues (1967). Finally, after entreaties from the Chesses, Wolf drove to Chicago in 1953 to take up residency in his label’s hometown. Ironically, he spent some of his early days there as a guest in the home of Muddy Waters, with whom he was soon locked in head-to-head competition for top-dog status on the local blues scene.


          He recorded prolifically for Chess from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s. His first studio bands featured Jody Williams and another guitarist he had recruited from the Delta – Hubert Sumlin, who as an underage youngster peeping through a juke-joint window had first witnessed Wolf’s unearthly power. Willie Johnson also emigrated north to join his former bandleader, but the renewed association with the volatile, hard-drinking guitarist would not be long-lived. Wolf cut a run of now-classic performances for the label: “No Place to Go,” “Evil,” “Forty Four,” “Who’s Been Talking,” “Tell Me,” “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” “Spoonful,” “Down in the Bottom.” Some became hits: the supercharged “Smokestack Lightnin’” and the Tommy Johnson adaptation “I Asked For Water” both reached No. 8 in 1956. Most of the best of these numbers were compiled on the Chess LPs Moanin’ in the Moonlight (1959) and Howlin’ Wolf, AKA “the rocking chair album” after its cover graphic (1962).


          Never a major chart presence, Wolf made his reputation in South Side and West Side blues clubs like his mainstay Silvio’s. Unlike his competitor Waters, a phlegmatic performer who let his band handle the heavy lifting for much of the night, he was an extroverted showman who commanded the stage from note one. Utilizing his imposing presence (he stood over six feet, three inches, and seemed just as wide) and the tricks he learned in his juke joint days, Wolf would prowl the room, waggling his tongue, swiveling his behind suggestively, and bugging his eyes; he would drop to his knees and crawl around on all fours, sometimes with a female spectator riding on his back, or spray the crowd with the contents of a Coke bottle tucked in his pants. Sometimes he would use a microphone with a long cord and walk through the house and out the front door to bellow on the street. A combination of mayhem, menace, and uncontained ebullience, Wolf was considered the best live act of his day.


           Wolf was a study in contrasts – an untamed creature onstage, a reserved, thoughtful, and sweet man in private. He was a iron-handed, business-savvy pro who made his band members appear in tuxedos, banned drinking and smoking onstage, and fined musicians who showed up late or drunk. He wouldn’t hesitate to whup any employee who gave him lip. But he also looked after his employees, and established Social Security and unemployment insurance accounts for them. A proud man who was illiterate when he arrived in Chicago, Wolf took adult education courses and private guitar lessons. (He also sent Sumlin to the Chicago Conservatory of Music.) While Waters was taking payments from Chess in Cadillacs and jewelry, Wolf was tallying his royalties; he paid for his Chicago home in cash. (In 1974 he became the first Chess artist to sue the label’s publishing company Arc Music for its chicane contract practices.)


            In the early ‘60s, Sumlin – who had a frequently combative father-and-son-like relationship with Wolf – assumed lead guitar duties in the band, after eschewing guitar picks and adopting a distinctive, finger-plucked style. His astonishing playing fires the best of Wolf’s sides from this era: “Shake For Me,” “The Red Rooster,” “You’ll Be Mine,” “Killing Floor,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Louise.” During this same period, Willie Dixon penned several myth-making songs for and about Wolf, including “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy” and “Tail Dragger.”


            Changes in prevailing tastes shrunk the black audience for hard blues like Wolf’s at this time, but new developments thrust him onto the world stage. In 1964, he accepted an invitation from two German promoters to appear on the touring American Folk Blues Festival; he played on the continent and in England, where his high-energy style was rapturously received by white audiences hungering for authentic blues. Many British acolytes who saw him on the AFBF tour had either formed or would soon found bands playing his repertoire: The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Jeff Beck Group, and Cream all repaid their debt to the mighty Wolf. In May 1965, at the request of The Stones, the 54-year-old bluesman made his U.S. network television debut on the weekly music show Shindig, playing “How Many More Years” with the English rock stars seated at his feet.


            Back in Chicago, Wolf began to play the burgeoning North Side folk and blues clubs, where such young white blues performers as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Barry Goldberg were making their mark. In 1966, Wolf’s national profile received another lift when he appeared for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival. He would go on to “entertain the peoples,” in his words, at such psychedelic ballrooms of the day as San Francisco’s Avalon, and he headlined the prestigious Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1969.


            By the late ‘60s, Chess Records – under the direction of Leonard Chess’ son Marshall, who took on a key A&R role at the label – began attempting to contemporize its blues stars’ sound for the young white blues audience. A misguidedly psychedelicized 1969 album (featuring Miles Davis’ future guitarist Pete Cosey on fuzzed-out, wah-wahing leads) was a critical and commercial failure. (Wolf himself condemned it as “dogshit” in print.)


            Wolf’s health began to fail when he suffered a heart attack in 1969, but he rose to the occasion in 1970 when Chess, in another attempt to woo blues-rock fans, flew him to England for an eight day all-star studio date with such top players as Eric Clapton (who graciously insisted that Sumlin be included on the date), Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of The Stones, Ringo Starr of The Beatles (a last-minute fill-in), and keyboardist Steve Winwood. The resultant album, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (1971), became Wolf’s biggest hit, reaching No. 79 on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart during a 15-week run, and it spawned similar Chess releases by Waters and Chuck Berry.


            Though he recorded sporadically and continued to perform relentlessly, Wolf’s health weakened in the early ‘70s: He had a nearly fatal second heart attack, contracted kidney disease that required ongoing dialysis, and was involved in a car accident that exacerbated his kidney condition. He was nonetheless indomitable to the end. On Nov. 17, 1975 – just 10 days after a heroic, hard-charging performance at a Chicago Amphitheater concert – he was admitted to a hospital after complaining of fatigue. Doctors soon discovered a brain tumor, which killed him on Jan. 10, 1976.


            Wolf was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. His image appeared on a postage stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994. In 2000, a statue in his likeness was erected in West Point, Mississippi; it is said to be life-size, but everyone knows they don’t make statues that big.

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