Hubert Sumlin

Back to Blues

guitar, drums
born: November 16, 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi


Hubert Sumlin - Live at the Dutch Mason Blues Festival in Truro, Canada, 2008

When Hubert Sumlin plays guitar he takes you to his World of Blues Feeling - from despair to ecstasy, from delicate grace to raw power, from lost to found. Though he’s influenced and inspired many of the most famous guitar players, Hubert owns the magic. His style is original and personal and instantly recognizable. What kind of man can make or break your heart with his guitar?

Hubert’s website is where you’d expect to find the historical and professional facts of his life, but that kind of writing could easily miss Hubert’s gift to us and how he stirs our deepest emotions both musically and personally. I’m writing this from the perspective of a friend, a musician who sometimes performs with Hubert, and a Blues guitar player who appreciates him. This is neither an objective, journalistic biography nor promotional hype, but it will tell you who Hubert is.

I met Hubert in the mid-‘70s when I was playing guitar in Muddy Waters’ band and Hubert was with Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, Howlin’ Wolf’s band carrying on right after Wolf had passed. I knew and loved Hubert’s guitar playing and so did Muddy - an ultimate endorsement. I was thrilled to meet Hubert, but completely surprised and moved that he immediately treated me like an old, special friend. When you hear Hubert say, “I know THAT’S right, partner!” and see that big smile, you’ll be charmed, and dedicated to him for life. Hubert’s sweet Soul is the special secret ingredient in everything he does, including in his guitar playing. He’s already spent a long lifetime making us feel good, and Hubert assures us he “ain’t through yet!

Hubert Sumlin was born on November 16, 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Hughes, Arkansas. He was taken by the great Blues players he heard -- Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, and Son House. Hubert was born to take his place with these masters. His brother A.D. had nailed baling wire to a wall and plucked music out of it. Hubert told his mother that he wanted a guitar and she spent her entire $5 weekly paycheck to buy him his first. Good investment!

When Hubert was about 10, he sneaked out to the local juke joint and stood on a pile of Coca Cola crates to see Howlin’ Wolf. Drawn in by the music, he fell through the window and landed right on the stage. The club owner tried to throw out the underage boy, but Wolf insisted that Hubert stay and sit on the stage while he played. He later took Hubert home to his Mama and asked that he not be punished.

A few years later, Hubert and James Cotton started a band together. Howlin’ Wolf heard about them in West Memphis and soon brought Hubert to Chicago. Along with Wolf’s other great guitar players in the ‘50s, Willie Johnson and Jody Williams, Hubert contributed to some of the deepest, darkest, most primitive and powerful Blues the world has ever known. Hubert was developing his own guitar style, but still had a way to go. Hubert tells of how Wolf once told him to step down from the bandstand, complaining that Hubert was playing over his voice. Wolf suggested that Hubert lose the guitar picks, letting Hubert play softer but with more expression and tone. Embarrassed and hurt, Hubert went home to woodshed. He was talented enough to turn the setback into an opportunity for greatness and strong enough to return. Hubert developed a guitar style based on the human touch of flesh on steel, perfectly framing and answering Wolf’s roars and moans, and soloing with pain and humor, trouble and transcendence.

It is on Howlin’ Wolf’s early- to mid-‘60s recordings for Chess Records that Hubert Sumlin’s guitar playing crossed the line between impressive and legendary. Listen to, “Built For Comfort,” “Shake For Me,” “300 Pounds of Joy,” “Louise,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Killing Floor,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” How did this grinning genius come up with these original, emotional, Hell-to-Heaven guitar parts? Fortunately, we don’t need to know to enjoy them.

Howlin’ Wolf passed in 1976, but Hubert’s signature guitar tone and style lives on. Wolf’s band continued on under the leadership of his great sax/harp player, Eddie Shaw. The Wolf Gang featured Hubert with Detroit Junior on piano, Shorty Gilbert on bass, and Chico Chism on drums. Eddie and Shorty are still out there in today’s edition of Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, carrying on their deep Chicago Blues. Hubert left the band for a solo career in 1980, replaced by Eddie’s son Vaan, a very original and progressive Blues guitar player in his own right.

Hubert was helped and inspired to claim his legacy as a bandleader by his very close friend, Clifford Antone, the Austin club owner who built the ‘70s Austin scene that brought us Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. As with many Blues legends of his generation, Hubert has been recorded often, both as a leader and as a sideman. Still, Hubert’s albums and his gigs frankly brought him more love and respect than fame and fortune. I remember playing with Hubert in ’85 at New York City’s Lone Star Cafe and being awed that another of my musical heroes, Rockabilly star Carl Perkins, had stopped in to hear Hubert. Where do Blues and Rock legends go to get inspired? To Hubert Sumlin, who lacks their fame but has their love and admiration. That continues today - The Rolling Stones invited Hubert to sit in with them at one of their Madison Square Garden shows in January ’03.

In April 2000, a new Hubert Sumlin album was recorded that should bring Hubert’s recognition in line with his accomplishments. Due to Music Business Bullshit, this album has yet to be released, but it’s fair to say that this is the most anticipated unreleased Blues album today. The album was conceived and produced by Rolling Stones guitar player Keith Richards, wanting to play Blues with Hubert. The album has an interesting and legitimate concept: applying Hubert’s guitar playing to Muddy Waters’ songs. It features Levon Helm on drums, David Maxwell on piano, Paul Oscher on harp, Mudcat Ward on bass, and I’m proud to contribute some guitar. Keith Richards recorded “Two Trains Runnin’” with just him and Hubert. Eric Clapton plays and sings on “I’m Ready” and “Long Distance Call.” The final vocal guests have not been decided yet, but they will have to do justice to the Blues that has already been recorded for this album, as well as Muddy’s incomparable original vocals. Please watch this website for the latest news of progress in completing and releasing Hubert’s album.

More than 50 years after his musical career began, Hubert Sumlin enjoys being one of today’s Blues stars. He gigs as a bandleader all over the world. He’s often asked to be part of all-star Tributes to Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert’s playing gives these a direct connection to Wolf, complementing the sincere homage of David Johanssen and Jimmy Vivino. It’s my pleasure to feature Hubert in the Bob Margolin All-Star Blues Revue shows that I put together, and on the Telarc Records album of the same name that will be released in June ’03. Hubert delivers his trademark guitar style on an acoustic guitar, recorded at my house.

Still gigging often while most legends of his age are gone or retired, Hubert has faced and met the biggest challenge of his life. In the Fall of ’02, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had one lung removed, and has been tested to be cancer-free. He not only has already recovered his youthful strength, but has quit smoking and drinking. Given the chance to continue to make his music, and thrilled to survive, Hubert is living and performing with fresh fire. “I ain’t through yet!” he assures us, and proves it with every twisted Blue note he burns on his guitar.

Does Hubert Sumlin have a secret? What makes him one of the all-time great Blues guitar players as well as such a good guy? I don’t know, but I think they’re somehow related. I do know, however, that I’m blessed to enjoy his music and his friendship. Copyright 2003 Bob Margolin (used with permission)

 

Albums:
- Kings of Chicago Blues, Vol. 2 [EPM Musique 160002, January 1971] with Billy Boy Arnold, Fred Below, Joe Carter, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie Shaw
- My Guitar & Me [Evidence ECD-26045-2, December 1975] with Fred Below, Lonnie Brooks, Willie Mabon, Dave Myers
- Groove [Black & Blue 33511, 1976] with Carey Bell, Fred Below, Lonnie Brooks, Willie Mabon, Dave Myers
- Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party [Black Top 1036, November 1987] with Ronnie Earl, Doug James, Ron Levy, David Maxwell, Mighty Sam McClain, Greg Piccolo, Jerry Portnoy, John Rossi, Michael Ward
- Healing Feeling [Black Top 1053, September 1990] with Ronnie Earl, Darrell Nulisch
- Blues Guitar Boss [JSP 239, October 1994]
- Wake up Call [Blues Planet 1116, April 1998]
- I Know You [AcousTech, May 1998] with Carey Bell, Sam Lay, Jimmy D. Lane
- About Them Shoes [WEA, 2003, finally released: Tone Cool 51609, January 2005] with Blondie Chaplin, Eric Clapton, James Cotton, Levon Helm, David Johansen, Bob Margolin, David Maxwell, Paul Oscher, Keith Richards, Mudcat Ward

- Hubert's American Blues [Scout 4, ????] with Clifton James, Sunnyland Slim

Hubert Sumlin / James Cotton - Heart and Soul [Blind Pig, 1985] with Little Mike & the Tornadoes and Tony O

Hubert Sumlin / Willie Dixon / Sunnyland Slim- Blues Anytime! [Evidence 26052, 1994] 1964 session behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany

Jimmy Rogers / Big Bill Hickey / Hubert Sumlin - Bill's Blues [Atomic Theory 1112, October 1994] with Bob Stroger

Hubert Sumlin / Billy Branch - Chicago Blues Session, Vol. 22 [Wolf 120868, June 1998] with Willie Kent, Johnny B. Moore, John Primer, Carl Weathersby

Pinetop Perkins / Hubert Sumlin- Legends [Telarc 83446, October 1998] compilation album

He appears on the following albums:
Howlin' Wolf - The Rockin' Chair Album [Vogue 600111, 1962]
Howlin' Wolf - The Real Folk Blues [MCA/Chess LP-1502, 1966]
Howlin' Wolf - More Real Folk Blues [MCA/Chess LPS-1512, 1967]
Bo Diddley / Muddy Waters / Howlin' Wolf - The Super Super Blues Band [Checker LP-3010, 1968]
Howlin' Wolf - Goin' Back Home [Syndicate 003, 1970]
Willie Williams - Raw Unpolluted Soul [Supreme Blues 1001, 1970]
Howlin' Wolf - The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions [MCA/Chess CH-60008, 1971]
Howlin' Wolf - Live And Cookin' at Alice's Revisited [Chess CH-50015, 1972]
Howlin' Wolf - The Back Door Wolf [Chess CH-50045, 1973]
Muddy Waters / Howlin' Wolf - Muddy & The Wolf [MCA/Chess, 1974]
Howlin' Wolf - Change My Way [Chess CHV-418, 1975]
Elmore James / Jimmy Reed / Eddie Taylor - Street Talkin' [Muse 5087, 1975]
Lonnie Brooks - Sweet Home Chicago [Evidence ECD-26001, August 1975]
Luther "Snake Boy" Johnson - Lonesome in My Bedroom [Black & Blue 233515, December 1975]
Buddy Guy and Junior Wells - Live In Montreux [Black & Blue 33530, July 1977]
Carey Bell's Blues Harp Band with Lurrie Bell - Goin' on Main Street [Evidence 26055, 1982]
Howlin' Wolf Howlin' Wolf / Moanin' In The Moonlight [MCA/Chess 5908, 1986]
Willie Dixon - The Chess Box [MCA/Chess 16500, 1988] 2 CD set
Sunnyland Slim - Be Careful How You Vote [Earwig 4915, 1989]
Little Mike & the Tornadoes - Heart Attack [Blind Pig 3990, 1990]
Jimmy Rogers - Ludella [Antone's 12, September 1990]
James Cotton - Mighty Long Time [Antone's 15, 1991]
Howlin' Wolf - The Chess Box [Chess 9332, November 1991] 3 CD Box set
Pinetop Perkins - Pinetop's Boogie Woogie [Antone's ANT-0020-2, 1992]
Ronnie Earl - Test of Time [Black Top 1082, August 1992]
Little Mike & the Tornadoes - Payday [Blind Pig 4992, September 1992]
Howlin' Wolf - Live in Cambridge, MA, 1966 [New Rose Blues 5082, October 1992]
Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' Wolf Rides Again [Ace 333, December 1993]
Eddie Shaw - The Blues Is Nothing But Good News! [Wolf 120866, February 1994]
Snooky Pryor - In This Mess Up to My Chest [Antone's 28, April 1994]
Various Artists - Evidence Blues Sampler: The Third [Evidence 26048, April 1994]
Howlin' Wolf - Ain't Gonna Be Your Dog [Chess 9349, 1994] 2 CD set
Sunnyland Slim - Decoration Day [Evidence 26053, October 1994]
Howlin' Wolf & The Wolf Gang - Live At Joe's 1973 [Wolf 120100, January 1995]
Various Artists - Blues Costume Party [Black Top 1116, January 1995]
Willie Dixon - The Original Wang Dang Doodle [MCA/Chess 9353, 1995]
Various Artists - Evidence Blues Sampler: Four [Evidence 26058, April 1995]
Willie Mabon - Chicago Blues Session! [Evidence 26063, April 1995]
Sonny Boy Williamson II - In Europe [Evidence 26071, July 1995]
Various Artists - American Folk Blues Festival: 1962-1965 [Evidence 26100, November 1995] 5 CD Box set
Peppermint Harris - Texas on My Mind [Collectables 5575, December 1995]
Howlin' Wolf - Killing Floor [Charly 1041, October 1996]
Various Artists - Up Jumped the Blues [Music Club 241, November 1996]
Various Artists - A Celebration of Blues: Great Country Blues [St. Clair 2524, March 1997]
Howlin' Wolf - His Best (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection) [Chess 9375, April 1997]
Various Artists - House of Blues: Essential Chicago Blues [A&M 161280, May 1997] 2 CD set
Big Bad Smitty - Cold Blood [HMG 1003, October 1997]
Various Artists - Blues Guitar Duels [Easydisc 7049, October 1997]
Jimmy D. Lane - Legacy [Analogue 2005, May 1998]
Various Artists - Wolf Tracks: A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf [Telarc 83427, May 1998]
Sunnyland Slim - She Got a Thing Goin' On [Blind Pig 4942, October 1998]
Eric Sardinas - Treat Me Right [Evidence Records ECD-26102, February 1999]
Howlin' Wolf - His Best, Vol.2 [Chess 12026, July 1999]
Chuck Berry - The Anthology [Chess 112304, June 2000] 2 CD set
Various Artists - A Salute to the Chicago Blues Masters [Telarc 83492, November 2000] 3 CD Box set
Various Artists - Chicago Blues Festival: 1969-1986 [Black & Blue 600, September 2001] 5 CD Box set
Howlin' Wolf - The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues [MCA/Chess 112820, March 2002]
Bob Margolin - All-Star Blues Jam [Telarc 83579, May 2003]
Various Artists - Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: The Road to Memphis [Hip-O 70502, September 2003]
Various Artists - Lightning in a Bottle (original soundtrack) [Columbia 92860, September 2004]
David Maxwell - Max Attack [95 North 2450, February 2005]
Various Artists - Blues Guitar Killers [Wolf 120104, March 2006]
Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' the Blues [Music Avenue 125, July 2006] 2 CD set
Kenny Wayne Shepherd - 10 Days Out (Blues from the Backroads) [Reprise 49294, January 2007]

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Video:
- The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966, Vol. 2 [1962] DVD
- Blues Story [2003] DVD
- Crossroads Guitar Festival (2004) 2 DVD set

Looking for Hubert Sumlin sheetmusic?

Visit Hubert Sumlin's Website

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