Howlin’ Wolf was the stage name of Chicago blues man Chester Arthur Burnett, a musician who was known largely for his deep and scratchy vocal quality. This type of voice is now greatly associated with the blues, and Wolf was a primary factor in its popularity. He was also known for his immense physical stature, able to fill the stage with his sheer presence whenever playing in smaller clubs.
Although he was first active as a musician in the 1930s, Wolf’s first major studio album was released in 1959, entitled Moanin’ in the Moonlight. It contained a few of his first big songs, such as “Moanin’ at Midnight,” “How Many More Years” and “Smokestack Lightnin’,” the latter of which has become a major blues standard. Early songs like these allowed him to establish himself among other major blues musicians of his time, such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters.
His ability to put on a show didn’t hurt, either. He would move his hips while he sang, and he would even crawl on the floor like his namesake during performances of his song “Tail Dragger.” Many were surprised at Howlin’ Wolf’s ability to move the way he did, especially given his size. He had the frame of a linebacker, with just as much speed and force of movement. During his sets, he would jump, crawl, and just dance in general.
He had a number of hit songs that other blues musicians looked up to. A great deal of his music was also responsible for the later influence of blues on the rock and roll genre. Some of his more notable songs included “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” “Built for Comfort,” “Killing Floor,” and “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy.” Even today, those who try to make a name for themselves playing Chicago-style blues music tend to look back on Wolf’s hits as songs that helped to establish some of the most long-lasting blues conventions throughout the following decades.
Howlin’ Wolf may have eventually become a major influence, but he started small like many other blues musicians of his time. When he first struck out to play on his own in the 1930s, he was just a guy with a nice voice and a harmonica. He also learned how to play a very early version of the electric guitar, which was fundamental in establishing the impact he would eventually have on blues rock. He played with other musicians who would go on to establish better careers, such as Willie Brown, Floyd Jones and Robert Johnson. He was not active throughout all of the 1940s, but he started a band a few years after the Second World War. In the 1950s, he established a relationship with Leonard Chess that helped his Chicago career to really get underway.
Wolf played throughout the mid-1970s, at which point he passed away during a surgery on his kidneys. Long after his death, the song “Smokestack Lightnin’” was recognized for its historical significance, inducted into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Howlin’ Wolf himself was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Blues Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. He may not be the most well-known musician today, but his legacy is undeniable, and his influence is especially profound to those who have listened to his music.
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