Howlin’ Wolf quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included both Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at Modern Records and Leonard Chess‘ Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin’ Wolf’s How Many More Years in August 1951; Wolf also recorded sides for Modern, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and Wolf settled in Chicago, Illinois c. 1953. Upon arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Joseph Leon “Jody” Williams from Memphis Slim’s band as his first guitarist. Within a year Wolf enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin’s terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett’s huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. Although the line up of Wolf’s band would change regularly over the years, employing many different guitarists both on recordings and in live performance including Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, L.D. McGhee, Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, his brother Abe “Little Smokey” Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie “Abu Talib” Robinson, and Buddy Guy, among others, with the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late ’50s Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Wolf’s career, and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin’ Wolf sound.
In the 1950s Wolf had four songs that qualified as “hits” on the Billboard national R&B charts: “How Many More Years”, his first and biggest hit, made it to #4 in 1951; its flip side, “Moanin’ at Midnight”, made it to #10 the same year; “Smoke Stack Lightning” charted for three weeks in 1956, peaking at #8; and “I Asked For Water” appeared on the charts for one week in 1956, in the #8 position. In 1958, Wolf’s first album, Moanin’ in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.
His 1962 album Howlin’ Wolf is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as “The Rocking Chair album” because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained “Wang Dang Doodle“, “Goin’ Down Slow“, “Spoonful“, and “Little Red Rooster“, songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1964 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered “Little Red Rooster” on an early album. He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixonwho is credited with such Howlin’ Wolf standards as “Spoonful“, “I Ain’t Superstitious“, “Little Red Rooster”, “Back Door Man“, “Evil“, “Wang Dang Doodle” (later recorded by Koko Taylor), and others.
In May of 1970, Howlin’ Wolf, his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp traveled to London along with Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973. Chess released a Howlin’ Wolf compilation album, Chess Masters, in 1981.
Unlike many other blues musicians, after he left his impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin’ Wolf was always financially successful. Having already achieved a measure of success in Memphis, he described himself as “the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta” to Chicago, which he did, in his own car on the Blues Highway and with four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time. In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling, and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as “loose women”, to which so many of his peers fell prey. Though functionally illiterate into his 40s, Burnett eventually returned to school, first to earn a G.E.D., and later to study accounting and other business courses aimed to help his business career.
Wolf met his future wife, Lillie, when she attended one of his performances in a Chicago club. She and her family were urban and educated, and not involved in what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Wolf says he was, he pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. Together they raised Lillie’s two daughters from an earlier relationship, Bettye and Barbara.
After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiacstation wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.
At 6 foot, 6 inches (198cm) and close to 300 pounds (136 kg), he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the “classic” 1950s Chicago blues singers. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice has been compared to “the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road”. Although the two were reportedly not that different in actual personality, this rough edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less flamboyant but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters, to describe the two pillars of the Chicago Blues representing the two sides of the music.
Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs and Muddy Waters are usually regarded in retrospect as the greatest blues artists who recorded for Chess in Chicago. Sam Phillips once remarked of Chester Arthur Burnett, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’ ” In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #51 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Chester Burnett “Howlin Wolf” died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, IL, and is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois, USA Plot: Section 18, on the east side of the road. His large gravestone, allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton, has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.