• Cully Cooper

Howlin’ Wolf: The Man Who Sang the Blues


In the history of the blues, there are few to none who match Chester Arthur Burnett’s musical talent. To this day he is regarded as one of the best blue’s singers of all time. Burnett, better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf, is an American musician who blazed trails socially and musically. He is renowned for his particularly unique voice which gave him the denomination of “Howlin” it is likely the “Wolf” part of his nickname was given by his grandfather who called him “The Wolf.” Burnett was born in Mississippi in 1910, to an eclectic family. As a young man, Burnett sang in a Baptist Church in Gibson, Mississippi. It is here where Burnett claimed to have received his musical talents. At this time, he was kicked out of his home, and forced to move in with his abusive great-uncle. While living with his uncle he did not receive a formal education, and remained relatively illiterate until his 40s. He was also working just to feed himself and for his stay, effectively in a system of sharecropping. It was in the 30s where Burnett’s musical path would begin to flourish. Burnett idolized Charley Patton, a popular blues artist known for his eccentric showmanship, which later inspired Burnett’s act. It was from Patton that Burnett learned how to play the guitar, and together they performed across the Mississippi Delta. Throughout the thirties Burnett was a fixture across the southern blues scene. He played alongside his own inspirations and the renowned talents of that time. After serving a brief term in the military during WWII, Burnett produced a few songs for the Memphis Recording Service putting him on the map of the national music scene. Around this time Burnett starting forming a band which frequently changed in its members, but their sound was memorable and impactful to the people who listened. Throughout the 1950s, Howling Wolf performed in Chicago, establishing a familiar association with the Windy City. He also returned to his education, achieving his high school GED and later put himself through higher education focusing on business. It wasn’t until the 1960s where his music began reaching the Billboard National Charts, with his most famous song, “Smokestack Lightning” being one of the first. He saw his health declining around this time, and he had to limit his performances and the amount of shows he could do. However he was able to keep his notable fervor with which he performed.

Burnett passed away in January of 1976, at the age of 65. He is remembered for being a powerful performer and unparalleled musician. It is also notable that he was born into a society marred by segregation and unequal opportunity, only for him to rise up, escape the limits of society, ascertain an education, and make a name for himself worldwide.

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