Chester Burnett stood six foot three in size 17 shoes. Oh, he cut a mean figure off stage. And on stage? He became something else all together – somewhere between a superhuman and a feral beast. No surprise they called him the Howlin’ Wolf.
People who saw Wolf say there wasn’t anything like it. Ozzy biting heads off bats had nothin’ on the Wolf. Just the look in his eyes could scare the pants off a concert-goer. He’d spin on his back, somersault over his axe, even climb up the velvet curtains on stage and slide back down ‘em. All the while howlin’ and playin’. But for Howlin’ Wolf, the name came before the music.
My grandfather give me that name. He give me that name. He used to sit down and tell me tall stories about what the wolf would do, cause I was a bad boy you know. So he told me the story about how the wolf done to Little Red Riding Hood. Every time the girl would ask him, “Mr. Wolf, what make your teeth so big?” He said, “The better I can eat you, my dear.” And said, “What make your eyes so red?” “The better I can see you my dear.”
And then they finally killed the wolf and drove him up to the house, you know, and showed me the wolf. And I told him it was a dog. He said, “No, that’s a wolf.” I said, “Well what do a wolf do?” He said, “He howls, he said ooooh.” You know, and so I got afraid of this wolf. And every time I’d kill some of my mother’s chickens she said “Ooooh,” so that it would scare me you know. And it made me mad cuz they callin’ me Wolf.
So they just kept on callin’ me Wolf, and I got to the place I didn’t care what they called me, they can call me Panda if they wanted, you know what I mean, but ever since. Cuz you know how it is, some people when they find out that you get mad about something they always slip that in – that Wolf, and it upset me you know what I mean. I didn’t know it was gonna be a great name for me.
Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. He took great interest in sound and song as a young boy, beating on tin pans and imitating passing trains, as well as singing in the local church choir. His mother was a street-singer, who made money selling hand-written gospel songs to passersby. The long troubled relationship between mother and son came to a head when she disowned Wolf for his love of “the Devil’s Music.”
After his parents separated, Wolf spent some time raised by his great-uncle, who, though a preacher, was a very cruel man. He didn’t last long there, and followed his father to his new home in the Delta. It was there that the young Wolf became fascinated by the blues musicians who worked on Ruleville’s Dockery Plantation, especially Charley Patton. Wolf convinced Patton to give him guitar lessons, and got harmonica pointers from his step-sister’s boyfriend, Sonny Boy Williamson II. In between work at his father’s farm, Wolf traveled the Delta with the men we now call the greats, Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, and of course Charley Patton.
Wolf was drafted in 1941, but after two years suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged from the Army Signal Corps. He returned to the south to play music. His career took off in 1951, when he was discovered by Sam Phillips (the man who discovered Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash) and brought into the studio. They recorded songs like Moanin’ at Midnight, and leased ‘em out to Chess Records. They were instant hits. Wolf moved to Chicago, the city he’d call home for the rest of his life. In Chicago, Wolf wrote and recorded hit after hit for Chess, and developed a friendship and rivalry with Muddy Waters.
Sam Phillips called Wolf the greatest talent he ever discovered—“This for me,” he once said, “is where the soul of man never dies.”
Wolf continued to record and tour throughout the 50’s, 60’s. Though his health began to fail in the early 70’s he continued to tour and record. His last performance in 1975 was marked by the incredible stage antics of his youth. He went so hard that as the audience gave him a five-minute standing ovation, he collapsed back-stage. Paramedics arrived to revive him. Howlin’ Wolf died two months later, on January 10, 1976. He is buried in Hines, Illinois.