This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.
Last time, we were rollin’ and tumblin’ with Muddy Waters.
This week, we’ll rock the house down with Howlin’ Wolf.
Here’s what we know: Chester Arthur Burnett, born June 10, 1910, was born into poverty in White Station, MS. His parents split up when he was a baby. As a child, his mother, with whom he always had a troubled relationship, kicked him out of the house for refusing to work on the farm and moved in with his uncle, who also treated the boy poorly. At thirteen years old, Burnett ran away and walked 85 miles to his father’s house.
Through the 1930s, Burnett frequented blues juke joints in the Delta area and saw acts like Charlie Patton (who taught him how to play the guitar), Sonny Boy Williamson II (who taught him the harp), the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Tampa Red, and Blind Blake. This inspired Burnett to start performing as well. He tried to emulate Jimmie Rodgers’ yodel, but with his gravel voice it ended up being more of a howl, leading to his nickname, given by his grandfather. After a brief stint in the Army, he began performing around Memphis.
In 1951, Ike Turner recruited him to record for what would eventually become Sun Records and rose to fame quickly. He played with some of the best musicians in the blues at the time, including Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, and Buddy Guy. He had a string of Billboard hits including “Smokestack Lightning”, “Moanin’ at Midnight”, “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Back Door Man”, “Spoonful”, and “I Ain’t Superstitious” just to name a few. He 1969, he had his obligatory psychedelic album, The Howlin’ Wolf Album, but then quickly went back to the Chicago sound that we all know and love.
Unlike many musicians who grew up poor in the Delta, Howlin’ Wolf was always financially successful. He drove himself to Chicago up Highway 61 in his own car and with $4000 in his pocket. While functionally illiterate for most of his life, he went back to school to get his GED and studied accounting and business management courses to manage his own career. His capability in handling his money let to his being able to offer band members a good pay and also benefits like health insurance, which is partly how he was able to attract such fine talent.
Howlin’ Wolf died on January 10, 1976 from complications related to a kidney surgery and is buried outside Chicago at the Oakridge Cemetery. He was posthumously honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 for “Smokestack Lightning”, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as an Early Influence and with three of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.
Chester Arthur Burnett was a mountain of a man: coming in at 6 foot 3 inches tall and nearly 300 pounds. As he might say, he was “built for comfort, not for speed”. He was even more imposing in his musical presence. He picked up his showmanship from Charlie Patton, doing tricks while playing to rival T-Bone Walker and Jimi Hendrix. His harmonica cut through like a train whistle. Howlin’ Wolf’s real money maker was his distinct voice — smoky, gravely, soulful, and cool. As Sam Phillips said in the 2003 documentary, The Howlin’ Wolf Story — The Secret History of Rock & Roll, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”
To pair with Howlin’ Wolf’s cool style, frugal personality, and smoky voice, you need something equally cool, affordable, and smoky. I would suggest High West Campfire Whiskey. The burn may even help you sing along with ol’ Wolf.