On this day in 1910, Chester Arthur Burnett (named after the United States' 21st
president), who became a blues trailblazer as Howlin' Wolf, was born in
West Point, Miss. He was a farmer like his father until age 18,
when he met Delta blues legend Charley Patton and drew inspiration
from Patton's zeal for entertaining. Wolf also listened to Sonny Boy Williamson,
from whom he developed a passion for great harmonica playing.
Wolf started gigging in the South in 1928, and over the next decade he could be
found plying his trade on many a street corner. For a spell he could be heard
DJing on an Arkansas radio station, where he spun discs of then-rare electric
blues. But his own involvement in blues bands didn't begin until the late '40s,
when he formed his own outfit -- the House Rockers -- with master guitarist
Willie Johnson in Memphis, Tenn.
Sun Records chief Sam
Phillips began recording Wolf in 1951. When Phillips leased the
recordings to Chess Records,
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Howlin_Wolf/Moanin'_At_Midnight.ram"> "Moanin' at Midnight"
"Moanin' at Midnight"(RealAudio excerpt) became Wolf's first
R&B hit. Wolf then moved to Chicago to record for Chess, where he toned
down some of the aggression of his early music. He was joined there by
guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who would remain Wolf's musical partner for most of
the singer's career. Sumlin's approach to guitar -- often soloing behind Wolf's
vocals and at times totally eliminating chords -- made him a blues legend in his
In 1956, Wolf had more R&B hits with "Smokestack
Lightnin' " (years later covered by rock's the Yardbirds) and "Evil." In the next
decade, Wolf teamed with Chess
Records' house composer Willie Dixon, who began to write almost all of
Wolf's numbers. The pair's work during the '60s, combined with
Sumlin's guitar, would influence a generation of rock 'n' roll musicians,
including the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Doors and Led Zeppelin. The
Stones had an early hit with one of these '60s songs, "Little Red
Rooster" (and appeared with Wolf on the popular
musical TV show "Shindig" in 1965). The songs "Back Door Man" and "Shake
for Me" also came out of this period.
Wolf toured extensively in the '60s and early '70s in Europe and the
U.S., often appearing at blues and rock festivals. By 1964, he'd
started writing his own songs again, one of which, "Killing Floor,"
was eventually adapted by Zeppelin. His material was also recorded by
the Doors, Jeff Beck, Cream and other rock groups. A handful of these
musicians -- Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ringo
Starr, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman -- paid their respects to Wolf by appearing
on his 1972 album, The London Sessions.
By this time, the 6-foot-3, nearly 300-pound Wolf had begun to suffer from ill
health, sustaining a few heart attacks and kidney damage resulting from a car
accident. Wolf lived his final years in a Chicago ghetto, where he underwent
dialysis. He still played occasionally, however, and logged one of his last
shows in November 1975, with
B.B. King. Later that year, Wolf entered a Chicago
hospital for an operation, but he didn't survive it. He died on January
A statue of Wolf was erected in a Chicago park soon after his death, and in the
ensuing years, musician Eddie Shaw kept Wolf in people's minds by playing
with his band. In 1980, Wolf was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame,
and in 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- a
permanent reminder of the music world's debt to Wolf, especially for his passion
and ability to "tear the house down" in live performances.
Other birthdays: Tommy DeVito (Four Seasons), 62; Ann Wilson (Heart), 47;
Larry Dunn (Earth, Wind and Fire), 45; Mark DeBarge (DeBarge), 39; and Paula