Hubert Sumlin: Guitarist and Howlin' Wolf's right-hand man
Monday 12 December 2011
During the most commercially fruitful chapter of his life, Howlin' Wolf's earthy lyrics and bestial growl were lacquered with the terse and inventive lead guitar of Hubert Sumlin.
Indeed, on visiting England in the early 1960s as part of an American Folk-Blues Festival package, they played to rabidly enthusiastic crowds, and a re-issue of the eight-year-old "Smokestack Lightning" even made the domestic Top 50 in 1964. After it penetrated the repertoires of The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann, many other tracks featuring Sumlin were revived by artists including the Rolling Stones (who took "Little Red Rooster" to No 1 in Britain), Love Sculpture, The Doors, Cream, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, The Jeff Beck Group, Electric Flag and Led Zeppelin. His admirers also included Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Peter Green and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Of all the US blues entertainers who found similar favour, Sumlin's credentials were among the more impeccable. One of 13 offspring of a poor tenant farmer who supplemented his income by operating an illegal whiskey still, he spent his infant years in the same Mississippi district that had cradled Robert Johnson. After the family moved to Arkansas, an older brother allowed Sumlin to twang an unsatisfactory home-made creation before his mother bought him an acoustic guitar, even if she – and the first of more wives than Henry VIII – advised him not to consider music as a viable career. Nevertheless, he and mouth-organist James Cotton formed a combo that became popular at parochial functions.
By then, he had entered the orbit of Howlin' Wolf, with whom he was to record at the celebrated Sun Studios in Memphis. On relocating to Chicago, Wolf persuaded Sumlin (below, Rex), in 1954 to migrate north in order to join his all-electric blues band – in which he would remain until its front man's passing nearly a quarter of a century later, apart from brief tenures with Muddy Waters and Eddie Taylor.
Though Wolf, 20 years his senior, had a near-paternal regard for Sumlin, theirs was an antagonistic professional relationship that embraced fist fights, and on one occasion prompted Wolf, battling to be heard over the blast from Sumlin's amplifier, to direct him to leave the bandstand, recommending lessons from a local classical guitarist. As a result, Sumlin ceased using a plectrum, causing him to "feel the soul and the pain – and that made me better." Certainly, it complemented Wolf in more expressive fashion – as instanced on the likes of "Spoonful", "Back Door Man", "Killing Floor" and "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)", some reprised on disc during a resurgence of interest in the blues in the late 1960s.
Sumlin's sporadic record releases in his own right began with a 1965 single, "Across The Board", for the British company, Blue Horizon. However, though he proved no slouch as a lead vocalist, for several years after Wolf's death he preferred to work within the context of a group containing other former accompanists. He was also amenable to assisting on albums by some of the performers he had inspired, notably Peter Green's acclaimed Robert Johnson Songbook in 1998, produced by Cream's some-time lyricist Pete Brown and with Paul Rodgers, most renowned as a mainstay of Free, as guest singer.
Sumlin's last decade was blighted by respiratory problems, which obliged him to employ an oxygen mask on stage and during sessions for a final solo album, 2004's Grammy-nominated About Them Shoes, on which Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were among famous contributors.
Hubert Sumlin, blues guitarist and singer: born Greenwood, Mississippi16 November 1931; married several times; died Wayne, New Jersey 4 December 2011.
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