Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Howlin' Wolf: 300 Pounds of Joy

Of all the Chicago Bluesman who recorded for Chess Records in the Fifties and Sixties, Howlin’ Wolf may have produced the most affecting music. Howlin Wolf was a 300-pound powerhouse of a man who was known to wield his size and mean streak when he deemed it necessary. This intimidating image coupled with a ferocious, otherworldly voice is what earned him the name, “Howlin’ Wolf.”

He was born Chester Arthur Burnett in West Point, Mississippi, in 1910. He was born as one of the poorest of the Southern poor, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, who in his early adult life seemed destined for a life of sharecropping himself. In 1930, Burnett met the Mississippi Delta blues singer Charley Patton, and Patton instructed Burnett on guitar for a time. In addition to Patton, Burnett admired and drew influence from Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Blake. What would become Howlin’ Wolf’s famous howl, started as the singer’s attempt to replicate the yodeling of country singer, Rodgers.

During the Thirties, Burnett traveled through The South often in the company of other blues singers. When he was 30-years-old in 1940, he was drafted into the US Army. He stayed in the army for three years before being discharged in 1943, without having seen action. After his discharge, he returned home for a time to help with farming. He formed a band with guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt “Guitar” Murphy and began performing on the West Memphis, Arkansas, radio station, KWEM. Burnett’s performances on the station brought him to the attention of Sam Phillips of The Memphis Recording Service (later called Sun Records), the same man who would discover Elvis Presley years later.

In 1951, Burnett, now dubbed, “Howlin’ Wolf,” recorded the singles, “Moanin after Midnight” and “How Many More Years” for Chess records, and he relocated to Chicago. Wolf convinced the brilliant blues guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, to join his band in Chicago, and with Sumlin on board, Wolf would enter his classic period with terrific singles such as “Smokestack Lightning,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “300 Pounds of Joy,” and “Killing Floor.”

 In 1962, Howlin’ Wolf recorded his famous self-titled, “rocking chair” album, “Howlin’ Wolf,” a seminal and brilliant recording of Chicago blues. The album was recorded for Chess and included his tight band led by guitarist Sumlin.

Other brilliant Howlin’ Wolf albums include “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” (1971) and “Ridin’ in the Moonlight” (1982), and the compilations “Moanin’ in the Moonlight” (1959), “The Real Folk Blues” (1965), “Chester Burnett AKA Howlin’ Wolf’” (1972), “Change My Way” (1975), “His Greatest Sides Vol. 1” (1984), “The Chess Box” (1991), “His Best” (1997), and “The Geniune Article” (1997).