With a booming voice and looming physical presence, Burnett is commonly ranked among the leading performers in electric blues; musician and critic Cub Koda declared, "no one could match Howlin' Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits. A number of songs written or popularized by Burnett—such as "Smokestack Lightnin'", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "Spoonful"—have become blues and blues rock standards.
At 6 feet, 6 inches and close to 300 pounds , he was an imposing presence with one of the loudest and most memorable voices of all the "classic" 1950s Chicago blues singers. This rough-edged, slightly fearsome musical style is often contrasted with the less crude but still powerful presentation of his contemporary and professional rival, Muddy Waters - although the two were reportedly not that different in actual personality - to describe the two pillars of the Chicago blues representing the music.
Born in White Station, Mississippi, near West Point, he was named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, and was nicknamed Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow in his early years because of his massive size. He explained the origin of the name Howlin' Wolf thus: "I got that from my grandfather [John Jones]." He used to tell him stories about the wolves in that part of the country and warn him that if he misbehaved, they would "get him". According to the documentary film The Howlin' Wolf Story, Howlin' Wolf's parents broke up when he was young. His very religious mother Gertrude threw him out of the house while he was still a child for refusing to work around the farm; he then moved in with his uncle, Will Young, who treated him badly. When he was 13, he ran away and claimed to have walked 85 miles (137 km) barefoot to join his father, where he finally found a happy home within his father's large family. During the peak of his success, he returned from Chicago to his home town to see his mother again, but was driven to tears when she rebuffed him and refused to take any money he offered her, saying it was from his playing the "Devil's music".
In 1930, Howlin' Wolf met Charley Patton, the most popular bluesman in the Delta at the time. Wolf would listen to Patton play nightly from outside of a nearby juke joint. There he remembered Patton playing "Pony Blues," "High Water Everywhere," "A Spoonful Blues," and "Banty Rooster Blues." The two became acquainted and soon Patton was teaching him guitar. "The first piece I ever played in my life was ... a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare" (Patton's "Pony Blues"). Wolf also learned about showmanship from Patton: "When he played his guitar, he would turn it over backwards and forwards, and throw it around over his shoulders, between his legs, throw it up in the sky.Chester [Wolf] could perform the guitar tricks he learned from Patton for the rest of his life.Chester learned his lessons well and played with Patton often [in small Delta communities. His harmonica playing was modeled after that of Rice Miller (also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II), who had taught him how to play when Howlin Wolf had moved to Parkin, Arkansas, in 1933.
During the 1930s, Wolf performed in the South as a solo performer and with a number of blues musicians, including Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Brown, Son House, Willie Johnson. On April 9, 1941, at age thirty, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at several army bases. Finding it difficult to adjust to military life, Wolf was discharged November 3, 1943, during the middle of World War II, without ever being sent overseas. Wolf returned to his family and helped with farming, while performing as he had done in the 1930s with Floyd Jones and others. In 1948 he formed a band which included guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist remembered only as "Destruction" and drummer Willie Steele. He began broadcasting on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, alternating between performing and pitching equipment on his father's farm after his family's move to this area in the same year. Eventually, Sam Phillips discovered him and ended up signing him for Memphis Recording Service in 1951.
Howlin' Wolf quickly became a local celebrity, and soon began working with a band that included Willie Johnson, and guitarist Pat Hare. His first recordings came in 1951, when he recorded sessions for both the Bihari brothers at Modern Records and 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 c. 1953. arriving in Chicago, he assembled a new band, recruiting Chicagoan Jody Williams from Memphis Slim's band as his first guitarist. Within a year Wolf enticed guitarist Hubert Sumlin to leave Memphis and join him in Chicago; Sumlin's terse, curlicued solos perfectly complemented Burnett's huge voice and surprisingly subtle phrasing. Although the line-up of Wolf's band would change regularly over the years, employing many different guitarists both on recordings and in live performance including Willie Johnson, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, L.D. McGhee, Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers, his brother Little Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Freddie "Abu Talib" Robinson, and Buddy Guy, among others, with the exception of a couple of brief absences in the late '50s Sumlin remained a member of the band for the rest of Wolf's career, and is the guitarist most often associated with the Chicago Howlin' Wolf sound.
In the 1950s Wolf had four songs that qualified as "hits" on the Billboard national R&B charts: "How Many More Years", his first and biggest hit, made it to #4 in 1951; its flip side, "Moanin' at Midnight", made it to #10 the same year; "Smokestack Lightning" charted for three weeks in 1956, peaking at #8; and "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" appeared on the charts for one week in 1956, in the #8 position. In 1959, Wolf's first album, Moanin' in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles, was released.
His 1962 album Howlin' Wolf is a famous and influential blues album, often referred to as "The Rocking Chair album" because of its cover illustration depicting an acoustic guitar leaning against a rocking chair. This album contained "Wang Dang Doodle", "Goin' Down Slow", "Spoonful", and "Little Red Rooster" (titled "The Red Rooster" on this album), songs which found their way into the repertoires of British and American bands infatuated with Chicago blues. In 1964 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour produced by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. In 1965 he appeared on the television show Shindig at the insistence of The Rolling Stones, who were scheduled to appear on the same program and who had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album. He was often backed on records by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who is credited with such Howlin' Wolf standards as "Spoonful", "I Ain't Superstitious", "Little Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Evil", "Wang Dang Doodle" (later recorded by Koko Taylor), and others.In May 1970, Howlin' Wolf, his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the young Chicago blues harmonica player Jeff Carp traveled to London along with Chess Records producer Norman Dayron to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, accompanied by British blues/rock musicians Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and others. He recorded his last album for Chess, The Back Door Wolf, in 1973.
Wolf's health declined in the late 1960s through 1970s. He suffered several heart attacks and in 1970 his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident. He died in 1976 from complications of kidney disease.
Burnett died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois on January 10, 1976 and was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois in a plot in Section 18, on the east side of the road. His large gravestone, allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton, has an image of a guitar and harmonica etched into it.