Howlin' Wolf Marker
Backstory and Context
Howlin’ Wolf is one of the most referenced and recognizable blues musicians in American music history. Emerging onto the music scene shortly after World War II, Wolf became an instant music icon around the world. Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin Wolf was a key component in bringing the blues from Mississippi to the attention of the whole world.
Wolf was born in White Station, Mississippi on June 10, 1910. Throughout his childhood Wolf battled the ever present reality of poverty in the south. Poverty was common at the time but especially in black families and communities in the south, Wolf, like many other blues greats, was born on a sharecropping plantation. It was during this time of his childhood that he heard the blues for the first time. Wolf tutored under the watch of local blues great Charley Patton on the Young and Morrow plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. Patton taught Wolf everything he needed to know about performing. Everything from singing, playing, and showmanship, Patton taught him everything he knew. Once Wolf mastered his craft he began to perform across the south. As “Howlin’ Wolf” he performed in the region with bluesmen including Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Johnson. Every spring he returned from his wide travels to plow his father‘s farmland.
Wolf joined the army in 1941 and served until 1943. After he left the service Wolf decided to take up farming. Seeing as how jobs were scarce for people of color it must have seemed like a good choice. In 1948 moved to West Memphis, Arkansas. It is here where he formed an electric blues band and hosted a radio show on a radio station called KWEM. Wolf’s music caught the attention of Memphis producer Sam Phillips, who famously recalled, “When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'” Phillips first recorded Wolf in 1951 for the RPM and Chess Record labels. In 1953 Wolf moved to Chicago, where he continued to record for Chess Records, recording classics such as “Spoonful,” “Killing Floor,” “Back Door Man,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “Howlin’ For My Darling” with protégé and future blues great Hubert Sumlin on guitar. It was here where Wolf began to gain major attention from around the world. In the 1960s Wolf’s music was being covered by musicians and bands such as Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. This helped bring the blues to the forefront of music popularity at the time. His hit song, “Smokestack Lightnin’”, hit the top of the pop charts in 1964. All because the men that were famous at the time for “their” music gave men like Wolf the credit.
Wolf’s music remained popular in the south even after he moved to Chicago and after his death. Wolf passed away on January 10, 1976, in Hines, Illinois. He was only 65 years old, but the legacy he left changed the music world forever. Wolf was a major influence on many of the world’s finest musicians. That list includes Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, The Rolling Stones, Hubert Sumlin, and many more. His music is still being played today in blues clubs across the south and around the world. Howlin Wolf’s legacy continues on even today as one of the most revered and influential blues greats of all time.
Commission, Mississippi Blues. Howlin' Wolf. Mississippi Blues Trail. Accessed December 01, 2017. http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/howlin-wolf.