Wednesday, June 20, 2007

June 20, 1910:

Howlin' Wolf's Birthday (Maybe)

It's an odd thing that a poor black child born in Mississippi in 1910 would be named for Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the United States, who had not only been out of office for 25 years, but dead for nearly that long, since he had died in 1886. Surely his parents had their reasons. Are children named for presidents any more? A few, maybe, but mostly the custom has atrophied.

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as the bluesman Howlin' Wolf, was born either on June 10 or June 20, 1910, according to different sources. According to the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Vol. 3 (1996), Howlin' Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett... in West Point, Mississippi. After moving to the Mississippi Delta, he began playing guitar as a teenager under his tutor Charley Patton, who lived on a nearby plantation. Burnett began performing in the late 1920s. He traveled to various plantations throughout the South. In the 1930s, Burnette met Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex Miller), who taught him to play the harmonica. Burnett changed his name soon after learning to play the harmonica and developing his gutteral 'howlin' style under the tutelage of country blues man Charley Patton.

"After serving in the Army during World War II, Howlin' Wolf relocated to West Memphis, Ark., where he worked as a disc jockey for WKEM radio and formed his first band, which began recording in 1951. Following the success of 'Moanin' At Midnight' (Chess 1479), Wolf was signed to an exclusive contract with Chess Records and relocated to Chicago, where he reamined for the rest of his life. Howlin' Wolf continued to perform and record. He also toured the United States and Europe. He helped to define the postwar Chicago blues style.

"Even though Howlin' Wolf was born on a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, he brought the delta blues from the South into the limelight of Chicago and London. Although armed with a harmonica and acoustic guitar, Howlin' Wolf's primary instrument was his voice. Moans and high-pitched falsetto wails defined his vocal style, bringing an emotional urgency to his recordings. Many of his recordings laid the foundation for the golden age of rock and roll. Howlin' Wolf died in Hines, Illinois on January 10, 1976."

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