Hubert Sumlin: Guitarist and Howlin' Wolf's right-hand man

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Design Consultant - Kitchens & Interiors

£12000 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

Recruitment Genius: Solar PV Surveyor

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Corporate Security Officer

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This provider of commercial security solution...

Recruitment Genius: Design Consultant - Kitchen and Interiors - OTE £45,000

£17000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works