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Lillie and Chester Burnett, 1969

1969 Sandy G. Schoenfeld

Lillie Burnett and Mark Hoffman at A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf,
Chicago Blues Festival, June 10, 2000 (Wolf's 90th birthday)
Picture 2000 by Mark Hoffman

R.I.P. Lillie Burnett
August 12, 1925 May 11, 2001

Howlin’ Wolf’s widow, Lillie Burnett, passed away on Friday, May 11, 2001, ending one of the great love stories in blues history. Born Lillian Handley in Livingston, Alabama on August 12, 1925, Lillie moved in 1950 to Chicago, where she worked in the dietary department of a hospital. One evening in 1957, her brother and a cousin convinced her to accompany them to Sylvio’s nightclub to hear Wolf. He noticed her, introduced himself, talked with her, and offered to drive her home. Her brother and cousin followed in their car to make sure Wolf’s intentions were honorable. Wolf asked for her phone number, but she gave him the wrong one because she didn’t want to get involved with a bluesman, figured Wolf had lots of girlfriends already, and thought her mother would disapprove. Wolf ran into her several times in the following months and pursued a relationship until she relented. Years later she said, “I'm so happy I did!”

Wolf and Lillie lived together for six years before they married in March, 1964, and from all indications, though both Lillie and Wolf had been married at least once before, Lillie was the great love of his life. In an interview in 1968, Wolf said, “She was a flower the first day I seen her, and as far as I’m concerned, she’s a flower now.” Lillie provided a traditional home life and managed the couple’s finances wisely. She also encouraged him to go to night school to learn to read and write. “I married him to help him, because that’s what he needed,” she said. Wolf told Lillie, “I saw good in you the first night I laid eyes on you.” He also told her, “I wished I had had you the first day I ever howled.”

When Wolf developed kidney problems after a car accident, she learned to run a dialysis machine for him at home, and she and his bandleader, Eddie Shaw, arranged Wolf’s performance schedule so he could be near a VA hospital for dialysis while on the road. After Wolf died in January 1976. Lillie was one of the most active widows of any bluesman, appearing at festivals and events across the country. She helped induct Wolf into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, unveiled a U.S. postage stamp of him in 1994, unveiled a statue of him at his home town of West Point, MS, in 1997, and presided at a tribute to him on his 90th birthday at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2000.

Lillie said, “He was a kind, loving person to me. You had to know him to understand him, that’s for sure. If he liked you, he liked you. And if he didn’t he’d tell you just looking you dead in your eyes. That’s the kind of guy he was.” Lillie was the kind of gal who was strong and gentle enough to make Wolf's life complete. May she rest in peace.

Wolf and Lillie's gravestone
Lillie rests next to Wolf at

Hillside Cemetary, Hines, Illinois.