Chester Arthur Burnett was born on June 10, 1910 near West Point, Mississippi. The young Chester worked in the cotton fields with his father where he got introduced to blues music which was very popular within the African-American community at the time. In 1930, Chester met Charley Patton who taught him how to play guitar. Chester then decided to pursue a career as a blues musician : Howlin’ Wolf was born.
In 1948, Chester Burnett left Mississippi to West Memphis, Tennessee, and worked for a local radio station called “KWE”. He also formed a band, “The Houserockers”, which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt Murphy, pianist Bill Johnson, drummer Willie Steel and harmonica players Little Junior Parker and James Cotton.
In 1951, Chester met Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Howlin’ Wolf recorded his first hits : “Moanin’ At Midnight” et “How Many More Years”. In 1952, the bluesman moved to Chicago and signed a contract with Leonard Chess, founder of the famous blues label Chess Records. There, Howlin’ Wolf worked with composer and blues musician Willie Dixon who wrote some of his best songs, such as “The Red Rooster”, “Back Door Man” or “I Ain’t Supersticious”. His first LP, Moanin‘ At Midnight, was released in 1959.
In the 1960s, Blues music attracted a new audience among young people, especially in Europe. In England, the British Blues Boom was at its zenith. Many British musicians and bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones or Rory Gallagher) were influenced by blues musicians, and Howlin’ Wolf was one of their biggest influences. In 1964, the bluesman toured in Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival.
In 1962, Howlin’ Wolf recorded his second album: “Howlin‘ Wolf” (also entitled “The Rocking Chair album”). He also appeared in many blues compilation albums recorded by Chess Records such as “The Real Folk Blues” (1966). In 1969, Chess Records released “The Howlin’ Wolf Album” which mixed blues with psychedelic rock arrangements of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic songs. Rumour has it that Howlin’ Wolf hated this album, which could explain the origin of its controversial cover: a white background with black letters proclaiming “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”.
In 1971, Howlin’ Wolf worked with British musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts and released “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions”. In 1973, Howlin’ Wolf released his last album for Chess Records, entitled “The Back Door Wolf”.
Howlin’ Wolf died on January 10, 1976 after suffering from severe heart problems and kidney disease. He left an outstanding music legacy behind him.