There are two Chester Burnett’s with a claim to fame. One played football in the NFL for a spell, a linebacker. The other was a vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player, one of the most important fathers of Electric Blues. One Chester, he stood about 5’10 and weighed in at 230 pounds; the other Chester 6’3, 300 pounds.
Strangely enough, the more gargantuan of the two was the Chester with the musical chops, but of course, no one called him by his government name. He was, simply, Howlin’ Wolf.
Howlin’ Wolf was a rare breed, his presence onstage looming as large as his massive stats. When he sang his Delta-infused Chicago Blues, his voice rattled the foundation of the building, a jolting, amped up bellowing that was known to frighten and startle his audience as much as capture them. As it was, the Wolf did not merely perform on a stage; the Wolf owned the stage.
Like many authentic bluesmen, Howlin’ Wolf had a less than stellar Southern childhood. And like many poverty stricken children, he clung to something that inspired hope when the family dynamic failed. Under the tutelage of the original Delta blues icon, Charley Patton, the Wolf developed his powerful pipes, the very voice that transformed such standards as “Smokestack Lightnin” and “Back Door Man” from catchy tunes into Earth shaking thunderclaps. Sam Phillips, the famed record producer who discovered such talents as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, considered Howlin’ Wolf to be his greatest discovery, even though his attempts to sign the former Mr. Burnett were unsuccessful. So in awe was the world’s foremost judge of talent, Phillips once remarked, "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'’
Converse to the aching Blues that Howlin’ Wolf reverberated, the man himself was a portrait of success. Voraciously feral onstage, Howlin’ Wolf was a family man off of it. He was a farmer, a Mason, and a bandleader who bestowed his players’ on-time payment and a 401k type of retirement, unheard of at the time. And he saved his money wisely and lived cleanly, never falling victim to the rough edged lifestyle that chopped down so many of his contemporaries. As he said it himself, he was the only Delta Blues icon to “Drive outta the South like a gentleman".
The Wolf passed on in 1976, but his influence can be heard everywhere, from the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton to Punk Rock, Stevie Ray Vaughn to Little Richard. And if ever one should find himself resting along the Delta on a balmy summer’s eve, be not alarmed should a few hurricane-force notes come storming in from the backwoods nearby. It is probably just the Wolf, Howlin’ away.