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Classic Americana: Howlin' Wolf

Portrait of American blues singer and songwriter Howlin' Wolf smiling beside an electric guitar, 1960s.
Portrait of American blues singer and songwriter Howlin' Wolf smiling beside an electric guitar, 1960s.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

by Mike Pengra and Luke Taylor

June 14, 2024

Every Friday around 11 a.m. Central, it’s time for Classic Americana on Radio Heartland. We pull a special track from the archives or from deep in the shelves to spotlight a particular artist or song.

A highly influential blues musician and bandleader, and a staple of the Chicago blues scene, Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910, in rural, eastern Mississippi.

Charley Patton
Charley Patton
Revenant Archives

Burnett’s parents separated when he was only a year old, and the next few years were unstable and unpleasant for the young Burnett. At age 13, Burnett was reunited with his birth father, and his life stabilized in his father’s family’s warm and loving household. At age 17, Burnett saved money to buy his first guitar. Within a couple years, Burnett began studying and learning from the great blues musician Charley Patton. Later, he learned to play harmonica from the iconic Sonny Boy Williamson. And while the origins of Burnett’s nickname — Howlin’ Wolf — are unclear, he was influenced by foundational country musician Jimmie Rodgers, who was known for his signature yodel. When Burnett tried to imitate Rodgers’ yodel, he couldn’t quite emulate the sound, rather producing something that sounded more like a wolf’s howl. “I couldn't do no yodelin’,” Burnett went on to tell Rolling Stone magazine in 1968, “so I turned to howlin’. And it's done me just fine.”

It was in the 1950s that Howlin’ Wolf really made his mark in music. Joining the ranks of Mississippi blues musicians doing the same, Howlin’ Wolf relocated to Chicago and became part of the burgeoning Chicago blues scene — characterized by a shift from acoustic to electrically amplified instruments, whether electric guitars or harmonicas played through microphones. In Chicago, Howlin’ Wolf networked with a range of musicians; notably, Howlin’ Wolf’s steady guitar sideman was the dazzling soloist and improviser Hubert Sumlin. Howlin’ Wolf gained a strong reputation as a bandleader in Chicago because he was always prompt and generous when it came to paying his musicians, and he even paid for health insurance and Social Security.

It was in Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s that Howlin’ Wolf recorded his biggest hits and most enduring works, including “Spoonful,” which we’ll hear this week as our Classic Americana pick.

Howlin’ Wolf was a pioneering musician, a smart businessperson, and a loving husband and father figure. He died in 1976 from a combination of health issues that were exacerbated by a 1970 car accident. Howlin’ Wolf is buried at Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois, just west of Chicago. A guitar and harmonica are engraved on his headstone.

Following his passing, Howlin’ Wolf was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Classic Americana Playlist

Howlin’ Wolf – biography and tribute site

Howlin’ Wolf – Sun Records

Howlin’ Wolf – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame