Who was/is Howlin' Wolf ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
For a guy who didn't see the inside of a recording studio until he was 40 years old, Chester Arthur Burnett certainly made up for lost time. Of course, the giant known as Howlin' Wolf possessed the most fearsome, feral vocal cords in the annals of electric postwar blues. His wheezing harmonica was as distinctive as his unbeatable flair for showmanship; he routinely rolled around the stage in simulation of sexual ecstasy or climbed the stage curtains like a deranged madman.
"Wolf was the greatest that I've ever known," says his longtime saxist Eddie Shaw. "Wolf was not only a musician, he was an entertainer. That's what I respected him for."
Born June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi (near West Point), Burnett got his stage moniker from his grandfather (the impressively built lad also answered to Big Foot and Bullcow). His family settled in the Delta in 1923, and the great Charley Patton gave him personal tutelage on guitar in '28. Chester picked up harmonica licks from Rice Miller—Sonny Boy Williamson #2—when the harpist was romancing Wolf's sister. He was playing electric guitar on the streets as early as 1938. After returning from an ill-fated Army stint during World War II, the big man got more serious about his music, landing a daily 15-minute program on KWEM in West Memphis in 1949. Sam Phillips caught one of Wolf's broadcasts and was transfixed.
Phillips brought Wolf into his fledgling Memphis Recording Service in the spring of 1951 for a demo date. Sam shipped the results up north to Chess, which requested a full session in either May or August. Accompanying Wolf was his sledgehammer guitarist Willie Johnson, a product of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi (he was born March 4, 1923) who played pretty ninth chords one second and barbed-wire leads the next. Also on hand were drummer Willie Steele and a pianist. How Many More Years and its eerie plattermate Moanin' At Midnight were cut at that first date, and both pierced the R&B charts on Chess, How Many peaking higher at #4.
Meanwhile, Ike Turner had hipped the Bihari brothers to Wolf's talents and they pacted him to RPM, setting up a session at KWEM that September that yielded Morning At Midnight (Moanin' At Midnight in paper-thin disguise), a How Many More Years variant titled Dog Me Around, and two more titles. "The Modern record company would come in, and we would record the same songs for them and get 25 bucks apiece," said Turner. With Wolf now also on RPM, the feud between Leonard Chess and Modern's Bihari brothers ramped up. The battle was ultimately settled the next year when Modern held on to Memphis pianist Rosco Gordon (another Phillips discovery claimed by both labels) while the Wolf went to Chess. Great as Rosco was, looks like Leonard won that round.