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Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included both Willie Johnson and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he was simultaneously signed with the Bihari brothers at Modern Records and to Leonard Chess' Chess Records. Chess issued Howlin' Wolf's How Many More Years in August 1951; Wolf also recorded sides for Modern, with Ike Turner, in late 1951 and early 1952. Chess eventually won the war over the singer, and Wolf settled in Chicago, Illinois. He began playing with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, whose terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. In the mid-'50s Wolf released "Evil" and "Smokestack Lightnin'", both major R&B hits.
His 1962 album Howlin' Wolf is one of the most famous and influential blues records, known for its cover illustration of an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained "Wang Dang Doodle", "Goin' Down Slow", "Spoonful", and "Little Red Rooster", songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig along with the Rolling Stones, who had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album. He was often backed by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who authored such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Little Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Evil", "Wang Dang Doodle" (primarily known as a Koko Taylor hit), and others.
Howlin' Wolf album coverIn 1971, Howlin' Wolf and his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin traveled to London to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP. British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts played alongside the Wolf on this album. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
many other blues musicians, after he left his impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin' Wolf was always financially successful. He described himself as "the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta" to Chicago, which he did, in his own car on the Blues Highway and with four thousand dollars in his pocket, a rare distinction for a black blues man of the time. In his early career, this was the result of his musical popularity and his ability to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling, and the various dangers inherent in what are vaguely described as "loose women", to which so many of his peers fell prey.
Wolf met his future wife, Lillie, while playing in a Chicago club one night when she just happened to attend. She and her family were urban and educated, and not involved to what was generally seen as the unsavory world of blues musicians. Nonetheless, immediately attracted when he saw her in the audience as Wolf says he was, he pursued her and won her over. According to those who knew them, the couple remained deeply in love until his death. They had two daughters, Bettye and Barbara.
After he married Lillie, who was able to manage his professional finances, Wolf was so financially successful that he was able to offer band members not only a decent salary, but benefits such as health insurance; this in turn enabled him to hire his pick of the available musicians, and keep his band one of the best around. According to his daughters, he was never financially extravagant, for instance driving a Pontiac station wagon rather than a more expensive and flashy car.
At 6 foot, 6 inches (198cm) and close to 300 pounds (136 kg), he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s blues singers. Howlin' Wolf's voice has been compared to "the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road". Although the two were reportedly not that different in actual personality, this rough edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the more genteel but still powerful presentation of his contemporary, Muddy Waters, to describe the two pillars of the Chicago Blues representing the two sides of the music.
01. Moanin' at Midnight
02. How Many More Years
03. Smokestack Lightning
04. Baby How Long
05. No Place to Go
06. All Night Boogie (All Night Long)
08. I'm Leaving You
09. Moanin' for My Baby
10. I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)
12. Somebody in My Home