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Chester Arthur Burnett, "Howlin' Wolf" - Delta School

IMAGE: guitar icon Listen to a sample of "Moanin' At Midnight" (1.96MB wav)

PHOTO: Howlin' WolfBorn June 10, 1910, in West Point, Mississippi, Chester Arthur was one of Dock and Gertrude Burnett's six children. Burnett refined his singing at Life Board Baptist Church in Aberdeen as a lad. At the age of thirteen, he moved with his family to sharecrop on the Young and Myers Plantation near Ruleville. Burnett learned to play the guitar as a teen, influenced by guitarists Charley Patton and Willie Brown, who played on the square in nearby Drew. Burnett moved to the Dockery Plantation in 1929, both to work and to be around Patton.

Between 1928 and 1933, Burnett augmented his sharecropping income playing fish fries, dances, and the streets of Drew, Cleveland, and Ruleville, Mississippi. He adopted the stage name "Howlin' Wolf" during the 1930s, possibly from a record by Texas bluesman J. T. "Funny Paper" Smith. In 1933, Wolf moved to Twist, Arkansas, to farm, occasionally playing on the road with Robert Johnson, Texas Alexander, and brother-in-law Sonny Boy Williamson. Williamson also taught him the rudiments of harmonica, though not to Sonny Boy's own level of expertise. During the late 1930s Wolf often ventured to Memphis, playing local juke joints off Beale Street or in W. C. Handy Park for tips.

Wolf entered the U.S. Army in 1941, often entertaining troops during his hitch. After being mustered out in 1945, he returned to farming in the Delta. During the 1940s Wolf received his first radio work at KFFA, broadcasting King Biscuit Time from the Floyd Truck Lines Building in Helena, Arkansas. Joe Willie Wilkins contacted Wolf while the latter was in Moorehead and offered him work on King Biscuit Time playing harmonica when Williamson was away. In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he landed a job as a DJ for radio station KWEM. Adapting to new technologies in electrical amplification, he assembled a crackerjack band featuring Willie Johnson on guitar, Bill "Destruction" Johnson on piano, and Willie Steel on drums. Sam Phillips, a white recording engineer in Memphis, heard Wolf's show and immediately arranged a recording session for the band at his 706 Union Avenue studio.

PHOTO: Howlin' WolfThe session yielded the songs "Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years," which were leased to Chess Records and released as a single. On record, Wolf's huge, ferocious voice sounded as if it were torn from the back of his throat. His high-pressure moaning punctuated by a wolfish howl sounded like an amped-up Tommy Johnson. Wolf's harmonica playing held the melody while Willie Johnson played slashing guitar riffs and Willie Steel pounded the drums ferociously. The single soon entered Billboard's R&B Top 10, rising to number eight.

Wolf moved to Chicago in 1952 to be closer to the Chess studio but he continued to record Delta blues including "I Asked for Water" (a version of Tommy Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water Blues") and the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting on Top of the World." He continued to tour the South, and eventually became a successful international draw.

Howlin' Wolf died January 10, 1976, in Hines, Illinois. He is buried in Chicago.


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