Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, near West Point, Mississippi. (His grandfather nicknamed Chester “Wolf.”) Wolf’s father, Leon “Dock” Burnett, was a sharecropper; his mother, Gertrude Jones, a cook and maid. His parents split when Chester was one year old—Dock moved permanently to the Mississippi Delta, while Gertrude took Chester north to Monroe County. Gertrude was a mentally unstable religious zealot who sent her son away when he was ten, and Chester never really knew why—probably as a result, he had “mommy issues” for the rest of his life.
Young Wolf made his way to the home of great-uncle, Will Young. Will mistreated all of his own children, but was especially hard on Chester—he never let him go to school, often didn’t provide food, meted out severe punishments for even minor infractions. Chester was interested in music early on—he sang while plowing, made a one-string diddley-bow, and began to learn how to play the harmonica. Driven away by Will at age thirteen, Chester made his way to the Delta in search of his father. Although he seldom spoke of his miserable, poverty-stricken, brutal childhood, Wolf’s feelings came out in some of the songs he wrote.
Dock Burnett was glad to see his son and took good care of him. That this meant something to young Wolf became clear when, no matter how far he traveled from Dock’s farm during his wandering years as a neophyte bluesman, he returned each spring to plow Dock’s fields.
Though he wasn’t educated himself, Chester encouraged his step-sisters to learn to read and write. Despite—or more probably, because of—his lack of education as a youngster, Wolf’s “belief in self-education was a lifelong habit.” (16) This self-education included regular academic subjects, as well as a steady diet of lessons on reading music and playing both the guitar and the harmonica. By the time Wolf received an honorary doctorate from Chicago’s Columbia College in 1972, he had been taking academic classes at a local high school for six years and weekly guitar lessons for more than ten. (287)
Among Wolf’s early teachers was one reputed “Father of the Delta Blues,” Charley Patton. Wolf, fascinated by Patton, asked Dock to buy him a guitar. With the new guitar, Wolf began spending more time with Charley, who helped him learn to play, and, eventually, he performed with Patton around Ruleville. Before he left the Delta, young Wolf also traveled and played with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), who helped hone his skills on the harmonica, and performed with Robert Johnson, Son House, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnny Shines, and Jimmie Rodgers. Wolf admired Rodgers’ yodeling but couldn’t duplicate it, so he adopted a “wolf’s howl” that furnished the most famous of the half dozen or so names he eventually performed under. (Wolf’s gravelly voice was the product of boyhood tonsillitis that damaged his vocal cords. [22-23])
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A strapping, handsome man, Wolf had no trouble attracting women, but these encounters sometimes led to trouble. In Hughes, Arkansas, for instance, Wolf tried to protect one female acquaintance from an angry boyfriend, and the two men clashed, with Wolf killing his opponent with a hoe. (What happened afterward is a matter of dispute—Wolf either fled the area or did some jail time.) While sharecropping and performing around Pace, Mississippi, Wolf took up with Elven Frazier, who bore him a son, Floyd, in 1939. The two didn’t marry, perhaps because Wolf had to flee to avoid an angry white sharecropper, who threatened to kill him for playing a song for the white man’s wife on their porch.
Wolf’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II was an unpleasant experience. He never took to Army discipline; even the military’s efforts to teach the young man to read and write involved physical punishment. Finally, in late 1943, he was given an honorable discharge “for disability not in line of duty and not due to his own misconduct.” (55)
In 1947, Wolf married Katie Mae Johnson in Penton, Mississippi, and then retrieved his son Floyd from Elven Frazier. While still trying to break into the blues bigtime, Wolf encountered his mother Gertrude, who, as would be the case every time he met her, remained upset because he played the “devil’s music,” an attitude that was not unusual in the African American community.
Both his son Floyd and his musical acolyte Johnny Shines claimed that Wolf had told them he’d “sold his soul to the devil.” Segrest and Hoffman concede that Wolf was “conflicted” about religion, as were several other noted blues men, including Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House. The authors assert that Wolf was sure of only one thing: “He wouldn’t stand with the hypocrites he’d known who called themselves Christians and then did ungodly things.” (63)
After he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in the late 1940s, Wolf and various bands he organized experimented with “electric blues” and developed strong local followings. It was in West Memphis that Wolf first witnessed the guitar skills of Hubert Sumlin, who would eventually join his band in Chicago, creating “one of the great musical partnerships in blues history.” (87)
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Wolf’s big break came in 1951, when legendary producer Sam Phillips invited him and his band to move to Memphis to record. Phillips sent a demo to the Chess Brothers in Chicago, and the rest is blues history. Wolf’s proficiency with “electric blues” made his records strong sellers both in the Deep South and in northern cities of refuge during the “Great Migration.”
When Wolf moved to Chicago in 1953 to join Chess Records, that label’s star was Muddy Waters, who offered Wolf a place to stay in the Windy City—for a price. Wolf plunged ahead with his band, quickly displacing Muddy and his group at the Zanzibar Club and igniting a celebrated feud.
Wolf’s wife Katie Mae did not accompany him to Chicago, and she later died of breast cancer. In the late 1950s, Wolf met a widow, Lillie Handley. They hit it off at once, lived together for about seven years, and married in 1964. Wolf became a loving stepfather to Lillie’s daughters, whose boyfriends must have been intimidated, to say the least, when they dropped by to pick up their dates and heard their large, imposing stepfather explain his rules of dating to them!
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Life in Wolf’s bands was rocky and sometimes violent, because Wolf believed in rules and enforced them rigorously, much to the chagrin of some of his players. The move to Chicago eventually brought to Wolf’s band skilled performers like guitarist Hubert Sumlin; drummer Sam Lay; and saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who became his band leader. Wolf genuinely cared for the welfare of the members his band, eventually taking both Social Security and unemployment insurance from their wages, which, according to Segrest and Hoffman, was “unheard of for a Chicago blues band then and probably even today.” (179)
Wolf’s blues career peaked in the 1960s, but the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and Motown soul began to weaken his appeal to younger African Americans. Like other blues performers during this period, Wolf eventually was “rediscovered” and in demand. Various “British invasion” bands considered him an idol and did all they could to emphasize his influence on their music, as did aspiring American blues men like Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield, and Paul Butterfield. Overseas promoters also hoped to bring the music of African American blues performers like Wolf to European audiences.
Meanwhile, Wolf scrambled to keep in touch with his audience at home. Chess pushed him to try different musical styles as the blues market shifted, issuing albums featuring Wolf as an electrified blues singer (like Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” album); a soul singer; a folk singer; and a member of a blues “super group,” along with Waters, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter. Wolf had misgivings about these tactics, but he persevered, trying to find his groove, or at least locate the groove his fans preferred to see–and hear–him in.
In late 1969, Wolf’s health began to deteriorate. He suffered a heart attack in Chicago, and only quick work by Hubert Sumlin saved his life. Three weeks later, in Toronto for a gig, Wolf experienced additional heart and kidney problems but refused an operation recommended by his Canadian doctors, telling his wife Lillie that his band needed to continue working.
In May 1970, while in the UK to record The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, additional health problems cropped up. One year later, Wolf had another heart attack, and his kidneys failed. Yet he plunged on: by May 1973 Wolf was on the road again, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his opening acts included Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and George Thorogood.
By late 1973, Wolf had soured on the music industry, believing that he was being exploited by young, white musicians who were making millions off his music. In May 1974, his attorneys sued Arc Music and Chess Records for taking advantage of him. Wolf would not live to enjoy the fruits of his lawyers’ efforts; diagnosed with a brain tumor, he died on January 10, 1976.
In summing up their subject’s career, Segrest and Hoffman argue that “Today [Wolf is] considered one of the giants of American music.” (321) Their last paragraph is a dandy, especially if you don’t mind metaphor, personification, and wordplay clacking like pinballs:
The Wolf has stalked away in the end, but he didn’t wipe out his tracks. He had a very rocky furrow to plow in life, out of which he created music of incomparable beauty. In it, you hear all the joys and sorrows of a hard life fully lived. His art speaks to people across oceans and ages. It whispers about morality while moaning of mortality. It’s the blues. (325)
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Segrest and Hoffman surround Howlin’ Wolf with such a great “cloud of witnesses” that, in their hands, he becomes multi-faceted and comprehensive. In building their case, the authors frequently cite veteran Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards. It’s a rare chapter that does not include recollections of at least a few of Wolf’s contemporaries—family members; acquaintances; fellow Blues performers; and, especially once he got established in Chicago, members of his band. Segrest and Hoffman love to provide biographical and critical information on their hero’s bandmates. Moreover, once Wolf began to record, the authors seldom let an album go by without offering their take on its most significant songs.
James Segrest and Mark Hoffman have produced a fine biography, their conclusions buttressed by a raft of sources, including reminiscences by numerous contemporaries of Wolf. The volume is well-illustrated with striking black and white photographs. It’s difficult to imagine a better, fuller, or more interesting biography of Howlin’ Wolf. Moanin’ at Midnight is definitive.
Howlin’ Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs 1951-62. Acrobat Music (ACTRCD9039), 2014.
Howlin’ Wolf: His Best. MCA/Chess (CHD9375), 1997.
The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions. MCA Records (CHD9297), 1989.
The Howlin’ Wolf Story [DVD]. Blue Sea Productions (82876-56631-9), 2003.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: