5 of the Best: Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, was born in 1910 in White Station, a tiny stop on the railway—if passengers blinked they’d miss it—linking the towns of Aberdeen and West Point in the heart of North Mississippi’s hill country. He was named, somewhat inexplicably, after Chester A. Arthur, the undistinguished and largely forgotten 21st President of the United States who occupied the oval office from 1881 to 1885.

Looking back many years later from a position of unimaginable worldly success, it would seem to Burnett that music had always been with him. He could remember beating on pans with a stick as a young boy to imitate the rhythm of the passing trains that provided some of the only excitement in White Station.

Despite this and a few other pleasures, Burnett’s early life was hard and appeared to promise little. His parents separated when he was an infant and his father relocated to Mississippi’s musically storied Delta region. When Burnett was still a child, his domineering mother, a religious zealot, ejected him from the house for supposedly shirking farm duties. He went to live with an uncle, who abused him.

At 13, Burnett ran away to reunite with his father, making a gruelling 85-mile (137 km) journey on foot to the Delta, where he found stability within a large paternal extended family living on the Young and Morrow Plantation, near Ruleville. It was there Burnett met the man who shaped his musical education, Mississippi folk blues legend Charlie Patton. After Burnett’s father gave him a guitar for his eighteenth birthday in 1928, he began taking lessons from Patton and was later taught harmonica by Sonny Boy Williamson II, for a time his step-sister’s boyfriend. Burnett taught himself to sing by listening to records by Patton and another idol, Blind Lemon Jefferson.

By the late-1930s, Burnett was working as a farmer in Arkansas, where his family had relocated, but also touring the south as a blues singer.  At this stage, it is likely he was already performing as Howlin’ Wolf. Although the stories he told over the years about the origins of this name could be contradictory, it seems the moniker was inspired by Burnett’s grandfather, who used to warn that if he didn’t behave, the howling wolves of the Mississippi hills would come for him.

Burnett served in the US Army during the Second World War, but struggled with military discipline and was discharged in 1943. By 1948, he had relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, and formed his first regular band, The House Rockers. The group secured a radio spot, which brought them to the attention of Sam Philips (of Elvis Presley fame) who recorded two early singles. Although little footage of Burnett exists from this era, he was likely already exhibiting the rough physicality that would define his unique performance style.

Howlin’ Wolf (centre) and bandmates, date unknown

By his late-teens, Burnett had grown into large, powerful man who stood at 6 feet 3 inches and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Early publicity photos reveal a bear-like figure with an unusually large head, an open, slightly pock-marked face with high cheekbones, and enormous, gnarled hands.

Though a relatively crude instrumentalist, Burnett controlled any room he performed in with a booming voice and outsized personality. Onstage, he would careen around and jerk his body in a brutish way. While many (in particular the white, British-born blues musicians who later idolised him) confessed to being physically intimidated by Burnett, he was also known for his warmth and wry humour.

Burnett’s commercial break came in the early 1950s when he relocated to Chicago, assembled a new band featuring the sublime guitarist Hubert Sumlin and began recording with songwriter Willie Dixon for the Chess Label. Along with those of label-mate Muddy Waters, Dixon and Burnett’s Chess recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s codified the new genre of urban electrified blues. Howlin’ Wolf songs are characterised by a stomping 12-bar back-beat, alternately boastful, sinister and self-deprecating lyrics, peels of angular guitar and a booming yet mellow vocal delivery.

Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ at Midnight (Chess/MCA, 1962).

This electrified blues style, a key sonic template for rock and roll, was both the soundtrack and product of one of the major population movements of the twentieth century: the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the urban North and Mid-West in search of employment and racial freedom. This migration began as a trickle during the First World War and increased due to ammunitions manufacturing during the Second World War, reaching its peak in the post-war period and continuing until at least the late-1960s.

Due to its location as the first major transportation node directly north of the ‘Deep South’ states of Alabama,  Mississippi and Georgia, Chicago played an pivotal role in the Great Migration. Between 1916 and 1970, more than 500,000 African-Americans settled in Chicago of the approximate 7 million who left The South during this period. As early as 1945, sociologists St Clair Drake and Horace Cayton Jr would identify the city’s South Side as an emergent ‘Black Metropolis’, an urban environment being reshaped by the arrival of unprecedented numbers of African-Americans and itself altering the culture and life trajectories of the incoming population.

Men on the Street in Chicago, 1941. Library of Congress.

Burnett’s string of chart hits while based in Chicago during the 1950s were eventually collected in 1959’s Moanin’ at Midnight. This success was followed by his acknowledged masterpiece Howling Wolf (1962), more commonly known as the ‘Rocking Chair Album’ for its iconic cover image and The Howling Wolf Album (1969), an attempt to remake classic Burnett-Dixon songs with a contemporary psychedelic rock flavour. Burnett reputedly despised the latter project.

The 1960s saw Burnett tour the world, playing to large, rapturous audiences, particularly in Europe, as well as recording with a host of famous rock star acolytes . Despite being illiterate for much of his life, Burnett had returned to school in his forties to take GED-level courses in accounting, skills which served him well as his fame and income and critical respect increased in these years. Unusually for a blues bandleader, he was known for paying his backing musicians well and on-time and being personally frugal. Burnett’s health began to wane in the early 1970s:  he was a hard drinker and had bruised his kidneys in a 1970 car accident. Burnett died a wealthy, respected man in 1976. He is buried, fittingly, in suburban Chicago, the city whose musical heritage he had helped make world famous.

My top 5 Howlin’ Wolf songs:

1. ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ (Moanin’ in the Moonlight, 1959; earlier single release)

The most famous cut from 1959’s Moanin’ at Midnight, Hubert Sumlin’s driving guitar line made ‘Smokestack Lightning’ an early rock and roll standard. It was covered numerous times, particularly by Eric’s Clapton Yardbirds and other British blues  artists of the 60s, but never with as much grit as the original.

2. ‘Who’s Been Talkin’ (Howlin’ Wolf, 1962)

The lyrical conceit is simple and timeless: Burnett is anguished over a lover’s sudden departure, due to news of his philandering getting back to her. The harmonica-driven song has a haunted ambience, culminating in the weary, self-aware closing  chant: ‘I’m the causin’ of it all’.

3. ‘Killing Floor ‘ (7-inch Single, 1964)

A truly funky, danceable beat and seamy lyrics make ‘Killing Floor’ one of Burnett’s hardboiled classics. The song would be covered by Jimi Hendrix and ripped-off  (albeit with liner note credit) by Led Zeppelin in ‘The Lemon Song’.

4. ‘I walked all the way from Dallas’ (7-inch single, 1965)

Not one of Burnett’s most famous songs, but a favourite of mine due of the horns giving it slightly more upbeat, R&B sound, as well as the catchy double-time rhythm guitar.

5. ‘Back Door Man’ (Howling Wolf Album-1969)

Originally from the ‘Rocking Chair Album’,  this is one of the few songs on the critically panned Howling Wolf  Album-1969 that benefits from fuller treatment, making it sound even more delightfully sinister.

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