Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett in Mississippi in June 1910. As a young man, Wolf played harmonica and guitar and was influenced by both black (Charley Patton) and white (Jimmie Rodgers) musicians. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Wolf moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1948 to try his luck at a full-time music career. At age 40, he made his first recordings with Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Near the end of 1952, Wolf moved to Chicago, teamed up with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and became a star for Chess Records.
To get a sense of why Wolf was considered one of the most electrifying performers in blues history, here's Robert Palmer, from his book Deep Blues:
The MC announced Wolf, and the curtains opened to reveal his band pumping out a decidedly down-home shuffle. The rest of the bands on the show were playing jump and soul-influenced blues, but this was the hard stuff. Where was Wolf? Suddenly he sprang out onto the stage from the wings. He was a huge hulk of a man [6-4, 250+], but he advanced across the stage in sudden bursts of speed, his head pivoting from side to side, eyes huge and white, eyeballs rotating wildly. He seemed to be having an epileptic seizure, but no, he suddenly lunged for the microphone, blew a chorus of raw, heavily rhythmic harmonica, and began moaning. He had the hugest voice I have ever heard -- it seemed to fill the hall and get right inside your ears, and when he hummed and moaned in falsetto, every hair on your neck crackled with electricity. The thirty-minute set went by like an express train, with Wolf switching from harp to guitar (which he played while rolling around on his back and, at one point, doing somersaults) and then leaping up to prowl the lip of the stage. He was The Mighty Wolf, no doubt about it. Finally, an impatient signal from the wings let him know that his portion of the show was over. Defiantly, Wolf counted off a bone-crushing rocker, began singing rhythmically, feigned an exit, and suddenly made a flying leap for the curtain at the side of the stage. Holding the microphone under his beefy right arm and singing into it all the while, he began climbing up the curtain, going higher and higher until he was perched far above the stage, the thick curtain threatening to rip, the audience screaming with delight. Then he loosened his grip and, in a single easy motion, slid right back down the curtain, hit the stage, cut off the tune, and stalked away, to the most ecstatic cheers of the evening. He was then fifty-five years old.Here are several clips of Wolf, from the same time period (mid-1960s):
How Many More Years
Fuckin' A! ... Also: see the man wearing the hat to the left of the sax player when Wolf starts singing at 1:09? It's legendary Delta bluesman Son House.
Here's Dust My Broom from the same gig; also Shake It For Me, I'll Be Back Someday and Smokestack Lightning.
Moanin' At Midnight (May 1951)The best starting point for new Wolf fans would be His Best, a single CD released as part of Chess' 50th Anniversary Collection. Many of the same songs can be found on Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' In The Moonlight, which combines two albums (including the famous "rockin' chair" album) onto one CD.
The Wolf Is At Your Door (December 1951)
I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) (July 1956)
Who's Been Talking (June 1957)
Howlin' For My Baby (Late 1959)
Hidden Charms (August 1963)
Howlin' Wolf: The Chess Box (three discs) is an excellent career overview, while completists should track down The Complete Recordings 1951-1969, a 7-CD box released by the UK label Charly in 1993. A biography of Wolf -- Moanin' At Midnight by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman -- was published by 2004.