Born: November 16, 1931 | Died: December 4, 2011 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Hubert Sumlin's most famous, and to which he is most associated, contribution to the world of music and the blues is his enduring guitar accompaniment for Howlin' Wolf. Even if he never picked up a guitar after that, his place in the blues hierarchy would be secure. But he has gone on to be very much his own man and earned his rightful place on his own terms and talent.
Hubert Sumlin was born on November 16, 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Hughes, Arkansas. He was taken by the great Blues players he heard -- Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, and Son House. Hubert was born to take his place with these masters. His brother A.D. had nailed baling wire to a wall and plucked music out of it. Hubert told his mother that he wanted a guitar and she spent her entire $5 weekly paycheck to buy him his first. Good investment!
When Hubert was about 10, he sneaked out to the local juke joint and stood on a pile of Coca Cola crates to see Howlin’ Wolf. Drawn in by the music, he fell through the window and landed right on the stage. The club owner tried to throw out the underage boy, but Wolf insisted that Hubert stay and sit on the stage while he played. He later took Hubert home to his Mama and asked that he not be punished.
A few years later, Hubert and James Cotton started a band together. Howlin’ Wolf heard about them in West Memphis and soon brought Hubert to Chicago. Along with Wolf’s other great guitar players in the ‘50s, Willie Johnson and Jody Williams, Hubert contributed to some of the deepest, darkest, most primitive and powerful Blues the world has ever known. Hubert was developing his own guitar style, but still had a way to go. Hubert tells of how Wolf once told him to step down from the bandstand, complaining that Hubert was playing over his voice. Wolf suggested that Hubert lose the guitar picks, letting Hubert play softer but with more expression and tone. Embarrassed and hurt, Hubert went home to woodshed. He was talented enough to turn the setback into an opportunity for greatness and strong enough to return. Hubert developed a guitar style based on the human touch of flesh on steel, perfectly framing and answering Wolf’s roars and moans, and soloing with pain and humor, trouble and transcendence.
It is on Howlin’ Wolf’s early- to mid-‘60s recordings for Chess Records that Hubert Sumlin’s guitar playing crossed the line between impressive and legendary. Listen to, “Built For Comfort,” “Shake For Me,” “300 Pounds of Joy,” “Louise,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Killing Floor,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” How did this grinning genius come up with these original, emotional, Hell-to- Heaven guitar parts? Fortunately, we don’t need to know to enjoy them.
Howlin’ Wolf passed in 1976, but Hubert’s signature guitar tone and style lives on. Wolf’s band continued on under the leadership of his great sax/harp player, Eddie Shaw. The Wolf Gang featured Hubert with Detroit Junior on Piano, Shorty Gilbert on bass, and Chico Chism on drums. Eddie and Shorty are still out there in today’s edition of Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, carrying on their deep Chicago Blues. Hubert left the band for a solo career in 1980, replaced by Eddie’s son Vaan, a very original and progressive Blues guitar player in his own right.
Hubert was helped and inspired to claim his legacy as a bandleader by his very close friend, Clifford Antone, the Austin club owner who built the ‘70s Austin scene that brought us Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. As with many Blues legends of his generation, Hubert has been recorded often, both as a leader and as a sideman. Still, Hubert’s albums and his gigs frankly brought him more love and respect than fame and fortune.
More than 50 years after his musical career began; Hubert Sumlin enjoys being one of today’s Blues stars. He gigs as a bandleader all over the world. He’s often asked to be part of all-star Tributes to Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert’s playing gives these dates a direct connection to Wolf. Hubert is in the Bob Margolin All-Star Blues Revue shows, and on the Telarc Records album of the same name released in June ’03. Hubert delivers his trademark guitar style on an acoustic guitar.
His 2003 release “About Them Shoes,” displays an all star line up of guests which are there in a supporting role to benefit their hero. Hubert is on the record strictly in a guitar playing role and he is very comfortable playing the selections featured which are mostly standards from the Chess era. An era he was very much a part of.
Still gigging often while most legends of his age are gone or retired, Hubert has faced and met the biggest challenge of his life. In the Fall of ’02, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had one lung removed, and has been tested to be cancer-free. He not only has already recovered his youthful strength, but has quit smoking and drinking. Given the chance to continue to make his music, and thrilled to survive, Hubert is living and performing with fresh fire. “I ain’t through yet!” he assures us, and proves it with every twisted Blue note he burns on his guitar.
Hubert Sumlin passed Dec. 4, 2011