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At Sylvio's Sonnyboy II Charley Patton Wolf at play Robert Johnson

Howlin’ Wolf biography, part 1

(Chester Arthur Burnett)

Born June 10, 1910, West Point, Mississippi
Died January 10, 1976, Hines, Illinois

2000 Sandy G. Schoenfeld

Chester Arthur Burnett has probably had more impact worldwide than the 19th-century American president after whom he was named. With a musical influence that extends from the rockabilly singers of the 1950s and the classic rock stars of the 1960s to the grunge groups of the 1990s and the punk-blues bands of the 21st century, plus a legion of imitators to rival Elvis’s, he was one of the greatest and most influential blues singers ever.

Chester Burnett was born to Leon “Dock” Burnett and Gertrude Jones on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, a tiny railroad stop between Aberdeen and West Point in the Mississippi hill country, many miles away from the Delta. (You can see the station in the personalized photo books to the left of this page.) Fascinated by music as a boy, he would often beat on pans with a stick and imitate the whistle of the railroad trains that ran nearby. He also sang in the choir at the White Station Baptist church, where Will Young, his stern, unforgiving great-uncle preached. When his parents separated, his father moved to the Delta, and his mother left Chester with his uncle Will, who treated him harshly. One childhood friend said Will Young was “the meanest man between here and hell.

Wolf’s relationship with his mother was also troubled. Gertrude spent much of her adult life as a street singer, eking out a living by selling hand-written gospel songs for pennies to passersby. She disowned her son Chester, claiming he played “the Devil’s music.” Wolf’s wariness can be traced to his bleak childhood. 

Dockery Plantation, near Ruleville, MS

former White Station train station

Grave of Charley Patton

When he was 13, Chester ran away from Will Young to the Delta to rejoin his father, half-sister, and step-siblings, who lived on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville. There, Chester became fascinated by local blues musicians, especially the Delta’s first great blues star, Charley Patton, who lived on the nearby Dockery Plantation. When his father bought him his first guitar in January 1928, he convinced Patton to give him guitar lessons. He later took impromptu harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), who was romancing his step-sister, Mary. He learned to sing by listening to records by his idols “Blind” Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, and Blind Blake. He even affected the clothes and look of some of his musical idols. For awhile, he played music while wearing tiny wire-rim glasses and a dark suit like the only known photo of Lemon Jefferson. And  when he wasn’t working on his father’s farm, he traveled the Delta with other musicians such as Sonnyboy, Robert Johnson, Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown.



Copyright 2003 Howlin’ Wolf Productions. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11/09/14