A few weeks ago, we lost one of the greatest unsung musicians in American music history. Hubert Sumlin, a blues guitar maestro, passed away on December 4th, 2011, at the age of 80, and while he was well-known enough to make Rolling Stone’s most recent list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (he was ranked at #43), he was still relatively anonymous in the music world.
It was Sumlin’s affiliation with the inimitable bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf, that catapulted his career and allowed him the opportunity to create some of the most iconic blues licks of all time. In the mid 1950’s, it was the tandem of Wolf and Sumlin that took the Chicago blues scene by storm, helping to bring the blues out of the Southern cotton fields, and into the big Northern cities with amplification and attitude that allowed the medium to experience a popularity that it formerly lacked.
Born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1931, but raised in Hughes, Arkansas, Sumlin learned to play guitar by listening to the infamous Mississippi Delta blues singers of the day. When he was six years old, he was able to get his first guitar. In 1954, Howlin’ Wolf, who had met the younger Sumlin while living in Memphis, invited him to relocate to Chicago and become his guitarist. Sumlin played with Wolf almost exclusively, until the latter died in 1976, at which time he continued to play with members of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, under the moniker “The Wolf Pack”. He also began recording solo albums under his own name, and that continued through the 2000’s.
The further he drifted from the time of Howlin’ Wolf’s death, it seems the more musicians learned about him and his contributions to some of the best blues songs ever written. He was the consummate side-man, and a true musician’s musician, eventually becoming a kind of cult-like figure, both for his own work, and for his intimate relationship with one of the greatest singers (Howlin’ Wolf) in the history of American music.
His style was sparse, rough, raw, and dirty. He was economical in his playing, always lending the song whatever was absolutely essential to make it perfect. In short, it sounded as if he was playing a $5 guitar through a $10 amplifier, and in reality, he just might have been. But there was a busted beauty in that sound. Something that reflected an elegance where you would have expected none. He had a way of lighting you on fire, like he was attempting to create tension that at once made you feel alive and electric. Sumlin was one of the last true American blues musicians. He was part of an era that really enhanced the paradigm and came from a place of authentic experience. He deserves to be recognized and this is my attempt at doing so.
But I’ll let the music speak for itself…
(This song is called “Smokestack Lightning” and the guitar lick is one of the most famous guitar lines in music history. But listen to Wolf’s voice when it comes in. Imagine hearing this in the 1950’s. You wouldn’t know what the fuck to do.)
(This song is called “Evil”. Just a great groove. Sumlin’s laying down some subtle, but tasteful accompaniment behind Wolf, who of course, is telling it like it is.)
(Finally, this one is called “Forty-Four Blues”. The first thing about this one for me, is the almost chain gang-like rhythm, with the very pronounced back beat. The guitar work is once again, understated, but deceptively intricate and really makes the tune. And once again, Wolf’s voice just completely knocks me out. Where in the hell does that come from?)