Published on November 20th, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff


Music Flashback: “Howlin Wolf”

Guitarist, Songwriter, Singer (1910–1976)

Howlin’ Wolf was one of blues music’s all-time greats, known for his electric guitar-based style and hits like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Spoonful.”

“I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.”
—Howlin’ Wolf


Howlin’ Wolf was born on June 10, 1910, in West Point, Mississippi. He studied with bluesmen Charley Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson before eventually signing with Chicago’s Chess Records. An enthralling performer, he had hits like “The Red Rooster” and “Moanin’ at Midnight,” and by 1960, he had begun working with songwriter Willie Dixon. Revered by U.K. rock artists, Wolf died in Hines, Illinois, on January 10, 1976.


Chester Arthur Burnett, who would become iconic blues musician Howlin’ Wolf, was born on June 10, 1910, in the rural region of West Point, Mississippi, with the infant named after President Chester A. Arthur. Burnett received a guitar from his father when he was 18 and started to actively study and perform the blues. The moniker “Howlin’ Wolf” was said to be earned during his childhood, with reports varying on what inspired the nickname.

Burnett learned his craft from renowned bluesmen like Charley Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson, the latter being a family in-law, and performed in clubs during the 1930s while working as a farmer. He was stationed with the Army in Seattle, Washington during World War II, and then returned home, devoting himself fully to his music by the end of the decade.

Signs to Chess Records

Wolf had generally accompanied himself at performances with a guitar and harmonica, and he opted to form a band, the House Rockers, in 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee. He had a radio spot, which enabled him to promote his appearances, and by the start of the 1950s, he was scouted by Ike Turner—then an A&R person for RPM Records—who would also play with Wolf in his band. Wolf eventually recorded with Sam Phillips and later signed with Chess Records. He then relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he became highly known for his rousing, electric guitar-based style.

Hits Like ‘Smokestack Lightnin” and ‘Spoonful’

Wolf was a large, statuesque man who had a forceful, animated presence on stage and who let loose with a rich, textured vocal style. His hits include “How Many More Years,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” By the start of the 1960s, Wolf was collaborating often with songwriter/singer/producer Willie Dixon, who penned most of Wolf’s studio repertoire for the next few years, including classics like “Spoonful,” “The Red Rooster” and “Shake for Me.”

In contrast to his stage persona, it was said that Wolf was a quieter person who volunteered in the Chicago community and helped look out for his band members’ finances. He had two daughters with his wife, Lillie.

Revered by Rock Acts

By the end of the ’60s, Wolf’s work was being hailed and covered by a number of popular British and U.S. rock acts, including the Doors, Cream and the Rolling Stones, who had a big U.K. hit with their remake of “Red Rooster” and appeared with Wolf on the TV show Shindig. Wolf traveled to the U.K. to record his 1971 album, The London Sessions, which featured background support from Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr, among others.

After suffering from severe heart problems and kidney disease, Wolf died on January 10, 1976, at the age of 65, in Hines, Illinois. Wolf, who had earned an honorary doctorate from Chicago’s Columbia College, was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Click here to see live performance




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