We all know him as Howlin’ Wolf but he was born Chester Arthur Burnett in West Point, Mississippi on this day in 1910. After serving four years in the army, Wolf settled in Memphis where he had a regular 15-minute radio show on West Memphis station KWEM. He played the blues as he learned it from Charlie Patton (guitar) and Sonny Boy Williamson II (harmonica.) In 1951, Wolf’s commanding vocals and aggressive playing style came to the attention of Sam Phillips who heard his radio show performances between the farm reports, weather updates, and local ads.
Phillips recorded several sides at his Memphis Recording Studios while Wolf became widely-known around town. A year later, Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago and began his long association with Chess Records. He persuaded Memphis guitarist Hubert Sumlin to also relocate to the Windy City, and their band turned out numerous Willie Dixon-penned classics like “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Evil,” “Killing Floor,” and “Smokestack Lightnin’.”
This National Public Radio feature covers Chester Burnett’s career and how his music and larger-than-life stage persona influenced other artists.
NPR – The Blues of Howlin’ Wolf
Although functionally illiterate until his forties, Howlin’ Wolf was a savvy businessman and was successful enough to provide his bandmates with a steady paycheck, including health insurance. In 1962, Wolf toured as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, a music festival that showcased top blues performers like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and John Lee Hooker to European audiences for the first time
Copyright Hip-O Records and/or Reelin’ In The Years Productions
There are many collections of Howlin’ Wolf’s fabulous music but this comprehensive box set is one of the best:
Filmed live for British television, these historic concerts include Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin performing “Smokestack Lightning,” and the newly-recorded “Don’t Laugh At Me.” Stashed away in a vault, these broadcasts were not seen for almost 40 years!