Howlin’ Wolf’s masters from the Chess label have just been released on a four-disc set titled Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1931-1960.
When your father has worked a good piece of bottomland into producing crops that support the family and he dies young, if you’re the oldest son you have to take over, no matter what. That’s one theory of why Chester Arthur Burnett didn’t make his first recording until he was 41. Other bits of the story, which are still falling into place, have him learning music from Charley Patton, maybe spending some time in prison and having a bad time in the Army during the war. But by 1951, the farm was in safe hands, and Burnett, performing on the radio as Howlin’ Wolf, caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who was running the Memphis Recording Service and talent-scouting for blues labels like Chess and Modern.
These early recordings were earthy, a quality which provided the foundation for Wolf’s style and his appeal. Chess had its first hit with Wolf’s “How Many More Years” in 1951, and it cracked the national R&B Top 10.
This was Wolf’s regular Memphis band: Willie Johnson on guitar, Wolf on harmonica and Willie Steele on drums, with piano possibly by Ike Turner. Chess wanted him to move to Chicago so it could record him itself and use some of its house band, so in 1953, he packed a Cadillac with his stuff and took off north. By March, he was in Chess Studios, letting everyone know he’d arrived in the song “I’m the Wolf.”
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