Hubert Sumlin: The Blues are a Boxing Match

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 01.26.12 in Spotlights

Hubert Sumlin, who died of heart failure on Dec. 4, 2011, at age 80, had two careers as a bluesman. He is best known, of course, as a sideman – the incendiary guitarist who went mano a mano with Howlin’ Wolf’s apocalyptic voice. After Wolf died early in 1976, Sumlin and the band stayed together under saxophonist Eddie Shaw as the Wolf Gang until the guitarist went solo at the end of the decade. It is a measure of his easygoing, almost deferential, personality that, as both a sideman and a frontman, Sumlin started slow before coming on strong. But his death leaves a huge hole in what passes for the blues scene today; there will never be another guitarist quite like Hubert Sumlin.

Just as there will never again be a relationship in American music quite like that of Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf. The two first met when a teenage Sumlin saw Wolf at an Arkansas juke joint; later, their paths crossed a few times while Sumlin was playing in a band with James Cotton in West Memphis while Wolf was also based there. When Wolf moved to Chicago in 1954, his entire band, including guitarist Willie Johnson, stayed behind. Wolf hired Jody Williams for the job right after arriving in the Windy City, but soon convinced Sumlin to come north and join up as second guitarist. At the time, the country boy was 23 years young, while Wolf was already 44. They had a classic father-son relationship, with all that implies. When Sumlin first reached town, Wolf made him take guitar lessons at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Over their nearly quarter-century together, the two men punched each other out on occasion, and Wolf fired Sumlin, then hired him back, more times than either man could keep track of. Sumlin quit nearly as often (once to play for Wolf’s arch-rival Muddy Waters), then returned to the fold. Wolf asked Sumlin to turn down a little onstage and Hubert responded by playing so quietly the frontman couldn’t hear him at all.

But musically, they were happening from the beginning. Williams remained lead guitarist until quitting in 1955, when Wolf brought Willie Johnson up from Memphis because he felt Sumlin still wasn’t ready to take over. But even before 1960, when Sumlin did become the sole guitarist in the band, he threw off his fair share of sparks. On the 1954 song “I’ll Be Around,” Wolf sang so hard he blew out his mike, and the guitars of Williams and Sumlin played off each other with matching menace. Meanwhile, it was Sumlin’s stalking guitar, not Johnson’s, that made “Smokestack Lightnin’.” On a rare 1957 session on which he was the sole guitarist, Sumlin provided dark, Delta tinges to the likes of “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “Walk to Camp Hall.” In mid 1960, Wolf cut the Willie Dixon triumvirat “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Back Door Man” back to back to back with Sumlin and Freddy Robinson on guitars providing a stirring blend of the Delta and the big city.

Sumlin’s breakthrough came in ’61, after Wolf had fired him mid-set in front of 500 fans and brought another guitarist onstage at a Chicago club. Humiliated and unable to sleep that night, Sumlin picked up his guitar and began playing with his fingers rather than a pick, which Wolf had long been urging him to do in an attempt to quiet him down. Sumlin found that this made his tone as deep as it already was rich, his harmonies fuller and his playing more percussive; it gave him more control over dynamics. The next night he talked his way back into the band long enough to show off his new style, and Wolf dug it and rehired him. The first time Sumlin used the technique in the studio, the result was “Shake for Me” and “Little Red Rooster,” and all blues people know what happened after that. For the rest of the decade, Sumlin was the perfect foil for Wolf’s thundering vocals. His solos were as angular and fiery as lightning, his fills stabbing and slicing like a knife. His guitar shimmied as he went up the strings in frenzied yelps, came back down like a bird seeking prey; his note-bending and vibrato had an almost physical impact. He’d play a solo that screamed and careened around like a wounded animal, then grind his way back into the ensemble like a cement mixer. There were the barnyard guitar sounds of “Tail Dragger,” the wink-and-grin of “Built for Comfort,” the hammering two-guitar riff (with Buddy Guy) that intro’d “Killing Floor,” and so many more. On “Hidden Charms,” Sumlin is all over the place before pushing insistently into a barbed and nimble solo that draws its strength from his sense of timing as much as his chops. Though many have romanticized the crudeness of Sumlin’s playing, the truth is that his one-chord vamps and single-string solos were more elemental than elementary. And live he was even more unrestrained: playing with his back to the audience (out of shyness and so others couldn’t steal his licks) he’d peel off a solo that was completely out of tune, out of time and out of this world, and it drove everyone in the house, including Wolf, completely out of their minds. Wolf stopped instructing his “sideman” how and when to play; musically, it was now as if they shared one mind, and Sumlin should probably have gotten co-writing credit for many of those songs.

While still with Wolf, Sumlin had recorded a little bit overseas under his own name (the centerless My Guitar and Me dates to 1975), but he didn’t begin releasing albums in America until the 1987 album Hubert Sumlin’s Blues Party, a generic-sounding effort on which Mighty Sam McClain took most vocals. Succeeding solo albums continued to display mainly his natural reticence to step out until 1998, when he released I Know You and Wake Up Call. On the former, backed by Chicago vets like Sam Lay on drums and Carey Bell on harmonica, his guitar work is both finessed and abrasive, and he reworks some Wolf classics with real fire; the two long, slow-blues jams, “That’s Why I’m Gonna Leave You” and “I’ve Been Hurt,” go by quickly, so focused and resourceful is his playing. That carries over to the latter set, where he’s backed unobtrusively by the Jimmy Vivino Band and no less than six of the 10 tunes exceed six minutes in length, with Sumlin flashing some skronky new licks on “Makes Me Think About the One I Had” and “Hubert Runs the Voodoo Down.” On both, Sumlin finally figures out how to make the most of his admittedly-limited voice.

But he only sings one song on his final, and best, solo album. About Them Shoes was recorded in 2000 and 2001, but not released until early 2005. (Hubert was diagnosed with cancer in 2002.) It features Sumlin with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Paul Oscher, James Cotton and others. The song Sumlin sings, his own “This Is the End, Little Girl,” is the only one not written by or associated with Muddy Waters; backed only by stand-up bass, Hubert and Keith intertwine their two acoustic guitars like they share one mind. Their take on “Still a Fool” (with Keith singing ferociously) is moody and full of sharp edges. Clapton outdoes himself on “I’m Ready” and “Long-Distance Call,” playing much harder blues than he does on his own. Oscher’s savage harp plays off Sumlin’s shimmering guitar on “Come Home Baby.” At a time when so-called blues is rarely anywhere near its sources, this is a set of uncompromising blues – incisive, immediate, passionate and brimming with hard-earned wisdom. That’s exactly how Hubert Sumlin deserves to be remembered.