Chester Burnette came out of the Hill County of White Plains Mississippi like a whirlwind, to devastate all around him. He was a giant of a man, a giant of a performer and a giant of a singer. He blasted the blues, rocked it and took Chicago by storm.
In his younger years he worked the farms and you can just imagine him ploughing those rich fertile muddy fields without the need of a horse. His exuberance was overpowering. Everything he did was larger than life. His voice boomed and moaned, his antics were exaggerated beyond all bounds.
Chester learnt his trade from the old busking blues singers of the Delta like Tommy Johnson and Charlie Patton. He saw that they pleased a crowd not only by the brilliance of their musicianship but by the showmanship of their act. Tommy Johnson would actually play and sing while doing a handstand on his guitar. Charlie Patton was renowned for his tricks. He’d throw his guitar around, play through his legs, backwards and upside down. Throughout his life Chester did not just emulate these early singers; he tried his best to outdo them. He had a reputation for producing the wildest act ever. There were not only tricks with the guitar and harmonica but he would crawl around the stage waving his hand like a tail behind him howling like a wolf, roll his eyes like a rabid dog, lick the microphone, guitar neck and harmonica lasciviously and was even known to claw his way up the stage curtains. He’d do anything to get a response.
I remember him appearing on Juke Box jury back in 1964 with the single Love Me Darlin’. He was the unseen studio guest who was kept secretly behind the scenes. The jury did not know he was there and slagged the single off voting it a miss. I think he terrified them when he came out. He towered over them. He shook hands with David Jacobs who was not a small man himself but his hand disappeared in this huge mitt.
Musically he was revolutionary. Along with his young side-kick the guitarist Hubert Sumlin he took the Hill County hypnotic repetitive beat and electrified it. He competed with Muddy Waters for the latest Willie Dixon numbers and made them his own. Songs like Smokestack Lightnin’, Wang Dang Doodle, Backdoor Man, Little Red Rooster and Spoonful were covered by British Beat groups in the early sixties as well as the Blues and Acid Rock bands of the late sixties. Even the best of their versions were pale imitations. Nobody could match the power of that voice.
Chester was proficient on the guitar and harmonica and built up quite a reputation for himself by the time he arrived in Memphis and first recorded for Sam Philips at Sun records in the early 1950s. Sam had been acting as a scout for Chicago Blues labels like Chess and Modern and had started his own label. He was knocked out by Howlin’ Wolf and said that he was the greatest talent he had ever recorded. That’s saying something given the Rock stars that passed through that studio.
Howlin’ Wolf was seminal to the whole Chicago Blues scene in the 1950s and competed with the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James as the greatest of the Chicago Blues singers. He certainly was the most powerful. His voice has only been matched by that of his acolyte Captain Beefheart.
The Rolling Stones held him in such esteem that they insisted that he performed before them on their first American TV appearance. He blew them away.