Our Top 10 Howlin’ Wolf Songs list presents the best and most covered Howlin’ Wolf Songs like “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” and many more. Long before his imposing presence on the Chicago blues scene took its mighty bite, Howlin’ Wolf started out as Chester Arthur Burnett. Born on June 10, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi, he was named after the United States President, Chester A. Arthur, who served the nation from 1881 until 1884. In the short period of time, while he was president, the Republican earned a great deal of respect from the people as he served as an advocate in favor of human rights issues that involved every race, regardless of cultural background and skin color. Because of this, Burnett’s parents were among many who named their child after the man.
When Burnett was only a year old, his parents separated. With his mother, he relocated to Monroe County and grew up singing with her at a Baptist church near Gibson, Mississippi. Unfortunately, at some point when Burnett was still a child, his mother kicked him out during the winter season for undisclosed reasons. He’d move into the household of his great uncle, Will Young, but life for the young man did not improve. Mistreated and poorly educated, when Burnett finally had enough, he ran away to join his father and his family. As a means to put the past behind him, Burnett adopted “John D.” as a monicker. It would be the name people closest to him used for the remainder of his life. In regards to the relationship, he had with his mother henceforth, even after he became a success as one of the music industry’s finest, any attempt to regain a healthy relationship with her failed as she felt his success came at the cost of his soul.
The monicker of Howlin’ Wolf came when he was a child while spending time with his grandparents. He earned this after his reckless treatment of his grandmother’s baby chickens resulted in their deaths. This is just one story. Another was suggested the nickname was given to him by one of a young Burnett’s idols, Jimmie Rodgers. Regardless, this would be the name he would go by professionally. The road to becoming the infamous Howlin’ Wolf began in 1930 when he met with Charley Patton. At the time, he was the most popular blues musician in the Mississippi Delta. Patton took it upon himself to teach Burnett the guitar, as well as how to become a professional-level performer. Patton was known for treating his guitar as more than just a musical instrument. It was part of his show as a rotating prop that would occasionally be thrown up in the air as part of his stage gimmick. The impressionable Burnett learned how to do this as well, which also became a big part of his own act.
In addition to the mentorship Burnett received from Patton, Howlin’ Wolf also sourced other influential blues performers that made a solid impression on him. Two of the first songs Burnett learned to play well came from Bline Lemon Jefferson and Leroy Carr. “Match Box Blues” from Jefferson and “How Long, How Long Blues” from Carr served as a showcase of Howlin’ Wolf’s talent that suggested he was destined to become a Chicago blues star and more. It was during this time Burnett attempted to emulate the blues yodeling style Jimmie Rodgers had become famous for. Unfortunately, the best he could pull off was a mix of howling and growling. This, however, was the key to unlocking Burnett’s potential to officially become Howlin’ Wolf the fans would know and love. In addition to honing in on his howling skills, Burnett also learned how to play the harmonica, thanks to the mentorship of Sonny Boy Williamson II.
It would be during this timeline he met a woman who sat in the audience during one of his live performances at a Chicago club. She came from a family whose cultural background would be considered as part of the upper-class members of society. For a fully educated, urbanized woman to sit at a blues club during the 1930s, this was rare. For Burnett, when he saw her in the audience, he was so taken in by her that he won her over to become his wife. As Lillie Burnett, she was the love of his life and he was hers until the day of his death. Prior to meeting with him, she had two daughters from a previous relationship, whom he raised as if they were his own.
In 1933, Burnett moved to Parkin, Arkansas. Throughout the 1930s, he and several blues musicians either performed solo or as a group at various venues throughout the South. Along the way, he also learned how to play the electric guitar. In 1941, he was recruited to the United States Army during an era when the world was at war for the second time in history. Although he wasn’t sent overseas, he was stationed at several different military bases around the country before he was able to break free from the military in 1943. Serving America as a soldier was not in the cards for Burnett and he moved back to be with his own family in Arkansas. While there, he helped out on the farm while hooking back up with some of his blues buddies he performed with during the 1930s. In 1948, he put together his own band that included Matt Murphy on guitar and Junior Parker as a harmonica player. Their live performances were soon broadcast on a few different radio stations in Arkansas.
As Howlin’ Wolf became a prominent radio fixture, especially in West Memphis, Ike Turner took an interest in the man’s unique vocal style and brought him to record a number of songs at a studio in 1951. Sam Phillips, the man behind Memphis Recording Service, was so impressed by Wolf’s energy that he knew he was destined to become a star. It didn’t take long before he became a local celebrity. At the time, the Memphis Recording Service (aka Sun Studio) wasn’t officially formed yet and it was Chess Records who’d receive the licensed recording directly from Phillips. Before 1951 was over, Howlin’ Wolf was officially contracted with Chess Records. After this, he relocated back to Chicago before the end of 1952.
As a performer, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett developed an impressive reputation as a bandleader. He was among the few who paid his employed musicians well and on time. This resulted in some of the biggest names in the industry favor working for and with him. In addition to commanding respect and admiration in the music industry from his peers, he also owed much of his hit music to songwriter Willie Dixon. Throughout the 1950s, Howlin’ Wolf and Chess Records rival, Muddy Waters, competed against each other when it came to Willie Dixon’s written material. For Willie Dixon, he used this to his advantage, as well as theirs.
Thanks to Willie Dixon’s songwriting talent, along with Howlin’ Wolf’s imposing presence as a performer, the 1950s and 1960s experienced a blues revival as black musicians won over the appeal of white youths. Wolf was the first recording artist to not only win over the American audience but the European fans as well. When he embarked on the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964, his popularity on a global scale soared. Despite not receiving any radio play, much of the music recorded and released by Howlin’ Wolf during the early 1960s became some of his most recognized hits. The majority of them were written by Willie Dixon and most of them became blues and blues-rock standards that would be covered by a long list of British-based and American rock groups.
Both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters enjoyed greater success with the British audience than they did with the Americans. During an era when radio stations were reluctant to play Chicago blues music, the British music scene couldn’t seem to get enough of its influence. For a man that was mostly illiterate due to the lack of education, he received during his youth, his ability to become successful as an artist and as a businessman was nothing short of amazing.
Despite his financial independence, Burnett went back to school so he could earn himself a General Education Development (GED) diploma. After this, he took up accounting studies and business courses to help manage his career even better. Up until this point, his wife served as his manager to ensure their financial resources were protected Wolf’s career thrived. Unlike many musical artists at the time, Howlin’ Wolf preferred living a less extravagant lifestyle. This not only kept him financially stable but out of sticky situations that have brought so many successful stars down while still in their prime.
Howlin’ Wolf Legacy
There are twenty-three albums to Howlin’ Wolf’s credit. In 1973, he released The Back Door Wolf, which was a considerably shorter album than his previous work. This was due to the fact his health began to take a turn for the worse. Starting in the late 1960s, the deterioration of his health became evident. After a series of heart attacks, then an accident in 1970 where he bruised his kidneys, Howlin’ Wolf’s stage performance times were cut down to no more than twenty-one songs per concert. On January 10, 1976, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett died due to complications that stemmed from kidney surgery while at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois. He was sixty-five years old on the day of his death and was buried in a cemetery just outside of Chicago. There is an image of a guitar and harmonica etched onto the gravestone.
Top 10 Howlin’ Wolf Songs
#10 – Wang Dang Doodle
Written by Willie Dixon, “Wang Dang Doodle” became an urbanized-style party song that was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960, then released by Chess Records in 1961. It was later recorded in 1965 by Koko Taylor for Chess Records, which is a subsidiary of Chess Records. For Taylor, it became a hit on the US Billboard R&B chart, peaking as high as number thirteen. It also became a crossover hit on the pop charts, peaking as high as number fifty-eight there. Since then, “Wang Dang Doodle” has become a blues standard favorite that has been recorded by a variety of artists. This Dixon composition was a song designed to be a fun time song for guys coming up from the South. For Wolf, he didn’t care for the song, personally. While it was Taylor’s version that was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame’s Classics of Blues Recording in 1995, Wolf’s version was also very popular at the time it was released as well.
#9 – Match Box Blues
In 1927, Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote and recorded “Match Box Blues.” For Howlin’ Wolf, who was a fan, he already mastered this song as if it were his own long before signing up with Chess Records. The most famous version of this song would be “Matchbox” by rockabilly icon, Carl Perkins. Where Carl Perkinsturned it into a favorite for his ban base in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis did the same for his own in 1958. Where Howlin’ Wolf made it a Chicago electric blues favorite, Carl Perkins did so as a country star, as did Johnny Cash. In the realm of classic rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles each capitalized on the success of “Matchbox.” If it wasn’t for “Match Box Blues,” “Matchbox” wouldn’t have made the profound influence it did on so many artists. What Jefferson started, Howlin’ Wolf mastered in a genre it was originally designed for.
#8 – Goin’ Down Slow
First composed in 1941 by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, “Goin’ Down Slow” was a song that featured Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf performing as a team in this classic Chicago electric blues number. This blues standard favorite is regarded as one of the most famous blues songs of them all. For Oden, this was his signature song. Between Willie Dixon’s spoken narrative and Wolf’s gruff lyrics, the 1961 release of this song turned it into an easy fan favorite. Oden’s original version of “Goin’ Down Slow” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2002. There’s also a 1974 version of this song that was recorded and released as a single by Bobby Bland. For him, it became a number seventeen hit on the US Billboard R&B chart and a number sixty-nine hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
#7 – I Ain’t Superstitious
Recorded in 1961, “I Ain’t Superstitious” was a Howlin’ Wolf song that was written by Willie Dixon while the two were signed up with Chess Records. This served as an inspirational piece for Jeff Beck, whose blues-rock version in 1968 was featured in Rolling Stone’s Magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. For Wolf, the Chicago electric blues version was an original recording that toyed with the superstitions society exercised that were, according to the lyrics, unfounded. In 2017, “I Ain’t Superstitious” by Howlin’ Wolf was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as what was regarded as one of the most ominous songs Willie Dixon ever wrote.
#6 – Moanin’ at Midnight
In 1951, “Moanin’ at Midnight” became a number ten hit on the US Billboard R&B chart, which is now referred to as the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. For Howlin’ Wolf, this was his second hit single since debuting with “How Many More Years.” “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “How Many More Years” were recorded on the same record that was among the rare releases where both songs would become top ten hits on the music charts. It was first recorded with Chess Records, then at Bihari Brothers’ at Modern Records. This caused conflict between the two record labels that later led Wolf to record exclusively for Chess, starting in 1952.
#5 – Killing Floor
“Killing Floor” was a 1964 song written and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. If there was ever a song to classify as a genuine Chicago electric blues classic, “Killing Floor” would be it. It justifiably became a blues standard that has since been recorded by several artists, regardless of genre. The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame welcomed “Killing Floor” into its category of Classics of Blues Recordings in 1991. Fans of Led Zeppelin may recognize “The Lemon Song” as having a strong influence from Howlin’ Wolf. He was also credited for this song as a co-author.
The metaphorical “Killing Floor” was the description Wolf used when it came to describing a relationship between men and women when things between them became toxic. This song inspired Jimi Hendrix to perform it when he first began his career in 1965. Fans of Hendrix, as well as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, should easily recognize “Killing Floor” for the incredible classic it is.
#4 – How Many More Years
In 1951, “How Many More Years” became Howlin’ Wolf’s first hit single as it peaked at number four on what was considered the US Billboard R&B chart at that time. It was recorded at the Memphis Recording Service, then released by Chess Records. As far as some experts and historians of the music industry are concerned, “How Many More Years” served as the first rock and roll song that would pave the way for an industry that would explode into one of the most popular genres today.
This song, as well as “Moanin’ at Midnight” officially began a music career for Howlin’ Wolf that would make him one of the most popular and sought-after stars for about two decades. It also joined the ranks as a blues standard that won over an audience that would see future blues and rock stars come out of the woodwork. The electric guitar that was played by Willie Johnson, who was with Howlin’ Wolf as a band member at that time, was credited to be just as instrumental in the song’s success as Wolf’s unmistakable vocals.
#3 – Little Red Rooster
In 1964, the Rolling Stones insisted Howlin’ Wolf appear on a 1965 episode of a popular UK program, Shindig!. His performance of “Little Red Rooster,” inspired Mick Jagger and his group to record their own version of it, which became a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart in 1964. Originally titled “The Red Rooster” when Wolf first recorded it in 1961, this song played an instrumental role in the revival of the blues music scene. It also spawned blues-rock that would influence so many musical artists to follow in Wolf’s footsteps. “Little Red Rooster” was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
#2 – Spoonful
Written by Willie Dixon and first recorded in 1960 by Howlin’ Wolf, “Spoonful” became one of three songs that would become inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Howlin Wolf’s performance of this song was considered stark and haunting, as well as one of the all-time classic blues favorites. It was enough to spark the British rock group, Cream, to come up with their own version in 1966. “Spoonful” was a song that earned its source of inspiration from an older collection of tunes that revolved around the gluttonous behavior that causes people to over-indulge in desires that sooner or later take their toll on a person, inside and out.
The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame inducted it into its Classics of Blues Recordings category in 2010. Originally, “Spoonful” was meant for Otis Rush after it was written by Willie Dixon. However, Rush turned it down as he felt it didn’t suit him. Wolf took it and recorded it first before Etta James and Harvey Fuqua turned it into a duet in 1961. While it may have been their version that appeared on the radio stations and music charts, it was Wolf’s original that served as the key source of inspiration that would influence a range of blues and rock bands over the stretch of time.
#1 – Smokestack Lightning
“Smokestack Lightning” was a Grammy Award Hall of Fame Award winner in 1999 that recognized this song, as well as Howlin’ Wolf for the significant impact it had on the music industry. It was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Unlike “Little Red Rooster” and “Spoonful,” “Smokestack Lightning” was not written by legendary songwriter, Willie Dixon. It was written by Burnett himself and became one of his signature songs that are best identified with Howlin’ Wolf. It was first recorded as a blues song in 1956, long after Wolf was already performing this as far back as the early 1930s.
He, along with Charley Patton, performed this as a hypnotic-style drone piece. For Wolf, the inspiration for “Smokestack Lightnin'” came after watching trains go by at night. In 1951, he originally recorded this song as “Crying at Daybreak” before it was recorded for Chess Records in 1956, this time as “Smokestack Lightning.” For Wolf, it became a number eleven hit on what was considered the US Billboard R&B chart at that time. Nowadays, it’s referred to as the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. In 1964, “Smokestack Lightning” was released in the UK, via Pye International Records. At that time, it peaked at number forty-two on its official UK Singles Chart.
In 1985, it was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. The National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress selected this song in 2009 for permanent preservation for its cultural and historical significance.
Top 10 Howlin’ Wolf Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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