Sat April 5, 2014
marc on the blues

Hubert Sumlin Was A Blues Giant Who Walked With Giants

If you could have held your own playing guitar in the same bands with the Royalty of the Blues like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, you might have been as great a guitarist as Hubert Sumlin.

A man of contrasts, Hubert Sumlin was quiet and unassuming off stage, often fading into the background. On stage his roaring guitar blasted him out front in any group, even when he played with Wolf and Waters.

Sumlin started guitar at age 8 in his hometown of West Memphis, Arkansas. He hooked up at an early age with another someday to be legend, harmonica player James Cotton. His connection with Howlin’ Wolf resulted from sneaking into a club to hear Wolf play.

In 1953, Howlin’ Wolf decided to relocate from West Memphis to Chicago and took Sumlin with him. First to play rhythm and then, after Sumlin had absorbed a great deal of Wolf’s influence, he became the lead guitarist. From then until his mentor’s death in 1976 he contributed mightily to the signature sound of the Wolfman.

His unpredictable flashes of massed notes intermingled with unexpected silences were cited by Howlin’ Wolf as a major inspiration for him and the rest of his band.

There was a short period during the two decades that Sumlin played in Howlin’ Wolf’s band that he split off to work with Muddy Waters’ band. To have not only played with both Wolf and Waters but to have stood out in both of their bands makes Hubert Sumlin very much a Blues giant.

It would be a privilege to have been able to sit with Hubert Sumlin and hear he reminisce about the Blues…so let’s.

With his credits it is no wonder that a who’s who of Blues artists sought to play with Sumlin both before and after the passing of Howlin’ Wolf and he amassed a stellar career that included playing a truly rare Blues festival in East Berlin in the Cold War years and recording an album in 2004 called About Them Shoes with a guest list that included Rock royalty Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, and David Johansen.

After Hubert Sumlin’s death in 2011 his place in Blues history was confirmed by the fact that his funeral was paid for by Mick Jagger and Richards. The list of people he influenced is far, far, far too long to include. No doubt that influence will continue to be felt on through the years.


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