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Wolf at Chess Wolf in full cry Wolf, late 1940s Wolf, early 1950s Johnny Shines

Howlin’ Wolf Biography, Part 2

John Shines

From the start, Chester’s voice was startling—huge and raw like Charlie Patton’s, and even more powerful. He learned to play guitar and blues harp simultaneously, using a rack-mounted harp. His stage presence was absolutely feral, exaggerated by his physical size—he stood 6' 3" tall, weighed 275 lbs late in life, and wore size 16 shoes. John Shines, who also traveled with Robert Johnson, said, “I was afraid of the Wolf, like you would be of some wild animal....It was the SOUND he was giving off!”

Drafted in 1941, Wolf went into the Army Signal Corps and spent his time in the service mostly in the Pacific Northwest at Fort Lewis, Washington and Camp Adair, Oregon. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and was discharged from the Army, and soon moved with his girlfriend to a house in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1945, his girlfriend also suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Wolf left Tennessee and returned to playing music, and helping his father on his farm during the spring and fall. The rest of the year, Wolf was traveling through the South, playing with Delta bluesmen such as Willie Brown and Son House.

In 1948, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he put together a band that included harmonica players James Cotton and Junior Parker and guitarists Pat Hare, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Willie Johnson. He also got a spot on radio station KWEM, playing blues and endorsing farm gear.

Wolf and friends in Chicago club, early 1950s

In 1951, Wolf came to the attention of a young Memphis record producer, Sam Phillips, who took him into the studio and recorded “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years,” and leased them to Chess Records. Released in 1952, they made it to the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B charts. Wolf cut other songs that Phillips farmed out both to Chess and RPM. Chess eventually won the fight for Wolf, who moved to Chicago in 1953 and called the city home for the rest of his life.

Phillips, who certainly recognized musical talent (he later “discovered” Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Rich), said that Wolf was his greatest discovery and losing Wolf to Chicago was his biggest career disappointment. 

“Chester Burnett had such a soulful sound that even though his words were always good blues words, that man didn’t have to say a sound. Just like his song ‘Moanin’ at Midnight.’…When it came out, it was as if everything just stopped, everything that was going on. Time stopped. Everything stopped. And you heard the Wolf.

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“Had the young people truly got to hear him more, had he played on more programs listened to young people, who knows? Had this guy gotten that break, the kids would have absolutely gone crazy. He would have been one of the all-time music heroes. I mean that.”

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As it was, Wolf wrote and recorded songs for Chess that became blues standards: “Smokestack Lightning,” “Killing Floor,” and many othes. Chess songwriter Willie Dixon also wrote classic blues songs for Wolf such as “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Evil,” “Back Door Man,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.”

Wolf’s great rival for Chicago blues supremacy was his sometime friend, Muddy Waters. Their rivalry continued through the 1960s, aggravated by Waters’ temporary theft of Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. Like Waters, Wolf was an ambitious man. Their competition, though friendlier than most fans thought, forced both to struggle to be the best in blues.

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Jimmy Rogers

Several musicians who played with both Muddy and Wolf say Wolf was a more professional band leader. Wolf paid his people on time and withheld unemployment insurance and even Social Security, which some of his band members are drawing today. Wolf also stood up for his band and wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Jimmy Rogers, who played for years in Muddy’s band, said, “Wolf was better at managing a bunch of people than Muddy or anybody else. Muddy would go along with the Chess company. [But] Wolf would speak up for himself.”


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Revised: 11/09/14