Howlin' Wolf: Booming Voice Of The Blues His name was Chester Arthur Burnett, but everyone called him Howlin' Wolf. He played harmonica, but some say he was the greatest blues singer of all time. His unique voice mesmerized audiences and hugely influenced rock 'n' roll.
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Howlin' Wolf: Booming Voice Of The Blues

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Howlin' Wolf: Booming Voice Of The Blues

Howlin' Wolf: Booming Voice Of The Blues

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

His name was Chester Arthur Burnett, but he was known as Howlin' Wolf. He played harmonica, and some people say he was the greatest blues singer of all time. Howlin' Wolf's unique voice mesmerized audiences and hugely influenced rock 'n' roll.

NPR's John Burnett has this appreciation for our series 50 Great Voices.

JOHN BURNETT: On a Saturday night in 1957, the marquis at Silvio's Lounge on the West Side of Chicago was a blues-lover's dream.

Mr. BILLY BOY ARNOLD (Musician): They had three bands, Howlin' Wolf band, Muddy Waters' band and my band.

BURNETT: Bluesman Billy Boy Arnold says he heard lots of great blues singers in those days, but that there was never anyone or anything like Howlin' Wolf.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOWLIN' WOLF (Singer): (Unintelligible).

Mr. ARNOLD: Well, he had the most unusual voice in the history of blues. That was his trademark. A lot a people tried to imitate him. But he just had that big, booming voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Well, somebody calling me, calling me on my telephone. Well, somebody calling, calling on my telephone. Well, keep on calling, tell them I'm not at home.

BURNETT: Singer Ronnie Hawkins said it was stronger than 40 acres of crushed garlic. Bonnie Raitt said he was the scariest bit of male testosterone I've ever experienced. When legendary record man Sam Phillips first heard Wolf on the radio, he averred: This is where the soul of man never dies.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BURNETT: Maybe his guttural sound was a result of severe tonsillitis he had as a child. Or maybe Chester Burnett's hard early years somehow come out in his voice.

Mr. WOLF: I was plying full mule on the plantation.

BURNETT: He was born a hundred years ago, black and destitute, in Clay County, Mississippi, cast out of his home, raised by an abusive uncle who whipped him with a leather plow line, so poor, he once tied burlap sacks around his bare feet and so hungry he once ate food scraps tossed off a train by railroad workers.

Howlin' Wolf, like so many bluesmen before and after him, found release in music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Tell Automatic Slim (Unintelligible). We gonna do the wang dang doodle all night long, all night long.

BURNETT: While he was a young man sharecropping in Mississippi, Wolf apprenticed with Delta blues legend Charley Patton. And as Wolf said on a Chess record in 1968, he was deeply influenced by Patton's gritty singing and percussive playing.

Mr. WOLF: I liked his sound, and so every night that I'd get off of work, I'd go to his house, and he'd learn me how to pick the guitar. So I got good with it.

BURNETT: Wolf started playing on weekends in country juke joints, then moved to Memphis, made a name for himself and finally settled in Chicago to become literally a giant of the blues.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) (Unintelligible). I've got 300 pounds of heavy lead joy. I'm so glad that you understand, I'm 300 pounds of muscle and man.

Mr. JODY WILLIAMS (Guitarist): He was a big man. He wore a size 16 shoe, and his stage presence, when he talked or sing, I mean, people listen to him, you know.

BURNETT: Jody Williams played guitar alongside Hubert Sumlin in Wolf's band in 1954. And of all the famous musicians Williams backed up - Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim, Big Joe Turner - Wolf is the one he remembers best.

Mr. WILLIAMS: He even went outside the door of the club. He had a long, about 100-foot cord on his microphone. So Hubert and rest of the band and I, we were onstage playing, and Wolf just howling and singing. So he went out the door, down the sidewalk to the corner, and he's just blowing his harmonica and howlin' and carryin' on. But that was the Wolf.

BURNETT: That was the Wolf.

Mr. MARK HOFFMAN (Co-author, "Moanin' At Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf"): Wolf would crawl around on his hands and knees, and he'd howl like a wolf.

BURNETT: Mark Hoffman is co-author of "Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf."

Mr. HOFFMAN: He'd pound on the stage. And people would watch him; they just couldn't take their eyes off him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) I have a little red rooster (unintelligible).

BURNETT: With his feral stage presence and growling vocals, Wolf fought his way to the top of the cutthroat Chicago blues scene during the 1950s, neck and neck with his rival, Muddy Waters. In the '60s, young white rock and rollers discovered his music and began to cover his classic renditions of "Little Red Rooster" and "Spoonful."

In 1965, The Rolling Stones, fresh from England, appeared on the ABC TV show "Shindig." They had one condition: Their idol, Howlin' Wolf, had to be there, too.

(Soundbite of television program, "Shindig")

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man: Let's give it up, Howlin' Wolf.

BURNETT: A hulking black eminence stands at the microphone in a dark suit, his huge head sweating, stabbing the air with his finger, shaking his hips salaciously before a bevy of white go-go dancers.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BURNETT: It's surely one of the most incongruous moments in American pop music. Music journalist Peter Guralnick, who reveres Howlin' Wolf, goes even further. He calls it one of the greatest cultural moments of the 20th century.

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Music Journalist): What was so great about seeing Wolf on Shindig was it was in a sense reality imposing itself on this totally artificial setting.

And while, you know, the Stones, I was a big fan of the Stones, and seeing them on the show was exciting and everything, but it was all together appropriate that they would be sitting at Wolf's feet. And that's what it represented. I mean, his music was not simply the foundation or the cornerstone, it was the most vital thing you could ever imagine.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Smokestack lightning (Unintelligible).

Mr. WOLF: I had a woman once, she was kind of nice to me, and she pulled off and left me, and that give me the blues sure enough. I went to howling like a dog then, you know what I mean.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Well, dont you hear me cry (Unintelligible).

BURNETT: Since Chester Burnett died 34 years ago, there's been a postage stamp with his face on it, a statue in his hometown, a blues festival in his name and numerous Hall of Fame inductions and record reissues. The Wolf keeps howlin'.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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