Howlin' Wolf

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,


"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

own right.

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

10, 1976.

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

Abdul, 35.