Howlin’ Wolf – The Natchez Burnin
Chester Arthur Burnett (June 10, 1910 – January 10, 1976), known as Howlin’ Wolf, was an American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player. With a booming voice and looming physical presence, he is one of the best-known Chicago blues artists. Musician and critic Cub Koda noted, “no one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits”; producer Sam Phillips added “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'”. Several of his songs, such as “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Back Door Man”, “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful” have become blues and blues rock standards. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 51 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.
1930s and 1940s
In 1930, Burnett met Charlie Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Mississippi Delta at the time. He would listen to Patton play nightly from outside a nearby juke joint. There he remembered Patton playing “Pony Blues”, “High Water Everywhere”, “A Spoonful Blues”, and “Banty Rooster Blues”. The two became acquainted and soon Patton was teaching him guitar. Burnett recalled that: “The first piece I ever played in my life was … a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare” (Patton’s “Pony Blues”). He also learned about showmanship from Patton: “When he played his guitar, he would turn it over backwards and forwards, and throw it around over his shoulders, between his legs, throw it up in the sky”. Burnett could perform the guitar tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life. He played with Patton often in small Delta communities.
Burnett was influenced by other popular blues performers of the time including the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake, and Tommy Johnson. Two of the earliest songs he mastered were Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues” and Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long Blues”. Country singer Jimmie Rodgers was also an influence. He tried to emulate Rodgers’ “blue yodel”, but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl: “I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine”.[this quote needs a citation] His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Sonny Boy Williamson II, who had taught him how to play when Burnett moved to Parkin, Arkansas, in 1933.
During the 1930s, Burnett performed in the South as a solo performer and with a number of blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Brown, Son House and Willie Johnson. On April 9, 1941, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several army bases around the country. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, Burnett was discharged on November 3, 1943. He returned to his family, who had recently moved near to West Memphis, Arkansas, and helped with the farming while also performing as he had done in the 1930s with Floyd Jones and others. In 1948 he formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as “Destruction” and drummer Willie Steele. Radio station KWEM in West Memphis began broadcasting his live performances and he occasionally sat in with Williamson on KFFA in Helena.
In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded several songs by Howlin’ Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service. He quickly became a local celebrity and began working with a band that included guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare. His first record singles were issued by two different record companies in 1951: “How Many More Years” with “Moaning at Midnight” by Chess Records and “Riding in the Moonlight” backed with “Moaning at Midnight” by RPM Records. Later, Leonard Chess was able to secure his contract and Howlin’ Wolf relocated to Chicago in 1952. There he assembled a new band and recruited Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim’s band as his first guitarist. Within a year he enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin’s understated solos perfectly complemented Burnett’s huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. The line-up of the Howlin’ Wolf band changed regularly over the years, employing many different guitarists both on recordings and in live performance including Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, L.D. McGhee, Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, his brother Little Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie Robinson, and Buddy Guy among others. Burnett was able to attract some of the best musicians available due to his policy, somewhat unique among bandleaders, of paying his musicians well and on time, withholding unemployment insurance and even Social Security contributions. With the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late 1950s, Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Howlin’ Wolf’s career, and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin’ Wolf sound.
In the 1950s, five of Howlin’ Wolf’s songs appeared in the Billboard national R&B charts: “Moanin’ at Midnight”, “How Many More Years”, “Who Will Be Next”, “Smokestack Lightning”, and “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”. In 1959, his first album, Moanin’ in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.
1960s and 1970s
In the early 1960s, Howlin’ Wolf recorded several songs that became his most famous, although they never appeared in the record charts. These include “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Back Door Man”, “Spoonful”, “The Red Rooster” (later known as “Little Red Rooster”), “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Goin’ Down Slow”, and “Killing Floor”. Many of these songs were written by bassist and Chess arranger Willie Dixon; later, several found their way into the repertoires of British and American rock groups, who further popularized them. In 1962, his second compilation album, titled Howlin’ Wolf (often called “The Rocking Chair album”), was released.
Howlin’ Wolf toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965, he appeared on the popular music variety television program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose recording of “Little Red Rooster” reached number one in the UK in 1964. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Howlin’ Wolf recorded albums with others, including The Super Super Blues Band with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, The Howlin’ Wolf Album with session musicians, and The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, accompanied by British rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. His last album for Chess was The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
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