Introduction and Early Life:
Howlin’ Wolf was an American singer-songwriter and musician. A important figure in Chicago blues scene, he was one of the most original and imaginative musicians of the 20th Century. Known for a very strong roaring voice and a striking physical presence, several of his tremendously influential recordings have defined the blues and blues rock genres.
Born “Chester Arthur Burnett” in White Station, Mississippi in 1910, his parents divorced when he was very young. He earned the nickname “Howlin’ Wolf” from his parents due to his boisterous nature and huge physique. Wolf’s deeply religious mother abandoned him for refusing to work in the farm. He was then raised by his abusive uncle, who also had a drinking problem.
Career and Musical Achievements:
Howlin’ Wolf started playing guitar at the age of eighteen. He began his musical career performing at house parties and nightclubs in Ruleville. During the early 1930s, Wolf met Charley Patton, who became an important early musical influence and taught him the impassioned, croaky moaning style of country blues. Wolf also met and took inspiration from Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Johnson.
After his brief military stint, Wolf returned to the Delta and rose to prominence after forming his first band with harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker, guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt Murphy, and drummer Willie Steele in 1948. Within a few years, he signed with Sam Phillips of Sun Records and established himself as a leading blues artist after releasing hits such as “How Many More Years” and “Moanin’ at Midnight”.
Wolf switched to Chess Records and relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he recorded blues standards such as “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Back Door Man”, “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful” and earned a reputation for his guitar-based style. Wolf traveled to Europe as part of the Chess blues revival series. His intense, energetic performances of brought him a new generation of blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll fans.
Wolf’s illustrious career was plagued with illness, injury and a series of heart attacks in the early 1970s. He damaged his liver and kidneys in a 1970 automobile accident. Wolf died aged 65 of complications from kidney surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois in 1976. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.
Awards and Accolades:
Howlin’ Wolf earned numerous awards and accolades in his lifetime, and has been posthumously awarded many more. A few of them include three Blues Foundation Awards, and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He has been inducted into three music halls of fame: the Blues Hall of Fame (1980), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991), and Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame (2003).
Howlin’ Wolf married Lillie Handley in 1964, whom he had met during one of his performances in a Chicago club. The couple remained deeply in love until his death in 1976. They had two daughters, Barbara and Betty Jean.