With gruff raspy vocals, Howlin’ Wolf embodied the Blues genre putting his trademark growl onto America’s soundtrack. Howlin’ Wolf was born as Chester Arthur Burnett in June 1910 in West Point, Mississippi. He picked up the moniker Howlin’ Wolf as a child. He was exposed to the blues from an early age from studying blues legend Charley Patton.
Developing a Trademark Sound
Wolf developed his trademark sound, the howl, from the “blue yodel” of country singer Jimmie Rodgers. He was a one man show with his guitar and harmonica, but in 1948 he moved to Memphis, Tennessee and formed the band, the House Rockers. He promoted his appearances with a radio spot, and was scouted by Ike Turner, who was an A&R person for RPM Records and would play in Wolf’s band.
Producer Sam Phillips recorded Howlin’ Wolf at what would later become Sun Records after hearing him perform. Some of the material was leased to Chess Records and in the early 1950s, Howlin’ Wolf signed with the label and moved to Chicago.
Celebrating African American Influence of the Blues
Standing over 6 feet tall and about 300 pounds, with his commanding stage presence and textured vocals, Wolf fought his way to the top of the cutthroat Chicago blues scene during the 1950s alongside his rival, Muddy Waters. According to NPR, Mark Hoffman, co-author of Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf, described his animated stage performance. “Wolf would crawl around on his hands and knees, and he’d howl like a wolf. He’d pound on the stage. And people would watch him; they couldn’t take their eyes off him.”
Some of his hits include “How Many More Years,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Moanin’ at Midnight,” and “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.”
Wolf’s work was covered by multiple popular British and U.S. rock acts including the Doors, and the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones had a big hit with their remake of “Red Rooster,” and appeared with Wolf on the television show Shindig.
Howlin’ Wolf gave his last performance in Chicago in November 1975 with fellow blues legend B.B. King.
Howlin’ Wolf and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
After suffering from heart issues and kidney disease, Wolf died on January 10, 1976 in Illinois at the age of 65. Howlin’ Wolf was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. On September 17, 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp depicting Howlin’ Wolf.