“I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’ and it’s done me just fine.”– Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Burnett, who would eventually become the legendary Howlin’ Wolf, was born on this day in 1901.

He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the “early influences” category. He is in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (He recorded at Sun Records in the early years – pre-Elvis, in other words). He is in the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame. He is in the Blues Hall of Fame. I could go on.

Sam Phillips at Sun Records talked about him with the reverence usually reserved for spiritual experiences or out-of-body close encounters with extra-terrestrials. Everyone felt that way about him. The Rolling Stones sure did. He was one of their major influences. When the Stones appeared on Shindig, they handed over the stage to Howlin’ Wolf, with a great blues band, including the great James Burton (who would eventually play for Elvis all through the 70s). It’s astonishing, and the young Rolling Stones sit on the stairs behind him, looking up at him, agog. Poor quality clip visually, but all you need are the vocals.

Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi, recorded in Memphis, but eventually would become associated with the Chicago blues. His voice is unmistakable. So powerful it’s impossible to listen to him casually. He demands full attention. His strength of persona was titanic. He had major gravitas – as though he was emerging FROM the earth – but also explosive lift-off, creating an excitement so huge it must have been absolutely overwhelming to see him life. Most artists have one or the other – gravitas or lift-off. He had both.

We’re lucky he lived long enough (he died in 1976) so there is a lot of footage of him performing live.

One final thing, a funny thing I just discovered while trying to find the photo of him at the top of this post (it’s my favorite photo of him because he’s IN ACTION, he’s coming right at you). If you Google “Howlin Wolf” he is the first thing that comes up – of course – but one of the alternate searches showing in the search bar was “Howling wolf animal.” So what this means is: the determined wolf lovers out there who just want to see pictures of their favorite animal out in the wild howling at the moon, have to add “animal” to their search, to clarify what it is they are actually looking for – otherwise all they’d see would be pictures of this legendary bluesman.

The landscape is still saturated with his name.

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3 Responses to “I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’ and it’s done me just fine.”– Howlin’ Wolf

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    I’ve always thought that if a people could produce a voice that was a response to 250 years of slavery and 100 more years of Jim Crow, a voice with no half-measures or apologies, undiluted and undiminished, Howlin’ Wolf was that voice.

    I love seeing James Burton smiling in the background behind Wolf, and watching the ever-stoic Joe Osborne bopping up and down while playing his bass. Kudos to the Stones for doing this. I have to believe that as this played in white households across Middle America, parents lost their collective shit. (Although a few years earlier in the Fogerty household, young John was clearly taking notes.)

  2. Thanks so much for this! Went to the Smokestack Lightning Youtube page and there was this brilliant comment: “I’m a 46 year old black man and it’s 2021 and I knew these kind of men. You didn’t play around with them. Fearless men who grew up around so much murder that it’s hard to fathom. Men like my grandfather. They carried around enormous pain. Every once in a while they’d forget themselves and tell you about their friend who was lynched when they were a teenager. Or they’d tell you about their sister who was raped by a white sheriff. Then they’d catch themselves and end the story as quickly as it started. They didn’t want to pass along that pain to you. But you knew they’d kill a man if they hadn’t already because that was survival. Hard drinking. Hard fighting. Women. And running from God. The way he’s singing… that’s church. That’s gospel music stuff. We’d sing like that at church for an hour or two straight.”

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