HUBERT SUMLIN: A true legend for the rock n’ roll hall of fame
By Todd Beebe
The music world lost one of its true giants on Dec. 4, 2011. Mr. Hubert Sumlin created a guitar style that influenced generations of Blues players. Along with the mighty Howlin’ Wolf, he literally created and performed the style of “Rock n Roll” before that term was even used. He indeed was a true legend. I had the honor of seeing Hubert perform numerous times, many of those at Legends. Even in his later years, when he was dealing with health issues, he always gave 110% to his performances. Hubert was also the definition of the word gentleman. One of the kindest, friendliest people you could ever meet, he always greeted everyone like they were a life long friend. I believe that was because he actually felt that anyone who took the time to come and see him perform WAS a life long friend. Hubert Sumlin was a class act all around, and an architect of electric Blues – A legend in the true sense of the word.
Legends in the music business are an interesting breed. It seems like not a day goes by when we don’t hear the word “legend” being used to describe someone who really, in the grand scheme of things, have yet to fully pay their dues. Don’t get me wrong- leaving a mark on even a few listeners here and there is certainly cause for celebration! The music business can be a cutthroat world where you’re on top one day, then thrown to the curb the next. So, it’s certainly understandable and agreeable to give anyone credit that can rise to the top, even if it is for a very short time, but when the word “legend” is bestowed upon someone, in my opinion, that someone should be a person who’s music and style has affected everyone, worldwide. There are even musicians who may not realize they’ve been influenced by that person, and are getting it through another source. One name that is most definitely on that list is Mr. Hubert Sumlin.
Hubert held the title of guitarist for the great Howlin’ Wolf’s band for many years. The Wolf and Hubert are so connected, when anyone familiar with Wolf’s music is asked to name his greatest collaborator and musical partner, Hubert Sumlin’s name is guaranteed to be the first to come up.
Hubert Sumlin was born on November 16, 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Hughes, Arkansas. Early music that Hubert heard and influenced him tremendously came from the likes of Charlie Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House and Blind Willie McTell. He received his first guitar at the age of six when his mother spent her weekly paycheck of $5 to buy one for Hubert.
A few years later, Hubert decided to sneak out to a juke joint where the great Howlin’ Wolf was performing that evening. Standing outside the joint, and watching the show atop some empty crates, Hubert became more and more mesmerized by the Wolf and his music. [pullquote]The music touched him so deeply, he suddenly found himself falling through the window he was peeping through, and landed right on the stage! [/pullquote]A perfect introduction to the rightful place he would soon hold with Wolf! The club’s owner immediately tried to evict the underage Blues study, but Howlin’ Wolf demanded that the boy could stay and watch the rest of his performance, sitting right on the stage. Hubert knew he was in deep trouble with his mother when he arrived home. Wolf accompanied him to his house and convinced her the boy was just curious and pleaded with her to please not punish him.
Before long Hubert was playing in a band with James Cotton. Howlin’ Wolf had moved to Chicago, and sent word out to Hubert that he would like him to join him in The Windy City. Howlin’ Wolf originally recorded in Memphis, Tennessee at Sun Studio. Sun owner, Sam Phillips then sold/leased the sides to the RPM and Chess labels. During this time, Wolf’s main guitar man was Willie Johnson. Soon though, the mighty Wolf was asked to move to Chicago to work exclusively with Chess Records. Hubert accepted Wolf’s offer to relocate and join him full time. His style was still in the developing stages at this point. One great story tells of how Howlin’ Wolf told Hubert to put down the guitar picks because he was overplaying. Hubert listened and created a unique style of strictly playing with his fingers and created a sound and tone that would influence players around the world.
What happened next was the creation of some of the greatest Blues recordings ever laid to wax – a virtual blueprint of Chicago Blues at it’s finest, and a textbook for all future generations of how it is supposed to be done. Any definitive list of the greatest Blues songs of all time will surely include Howlin’ Wolf’s great “Smokestack Lightnin’ “ where Hubert and Willie Johnson provide a double guitar tour deforce that still has people scratching their heads to “get it” exactly how they did. Hubert Sumlin played alongside Willie Johnson and the great Jody Williams on many of those Chicago sides, but it is his guitar front and center on classics like “Killing Floor”, “Shake For Me”, “The Red Rooster”, “Louise”, and “Wang Dang Doodle.”
When producers tried to bring the founding fathers of the Blues into a more “modern” era with the early 70’s London Sessions albums, they asked then current Rock players to guest on the albums. [pullquote]When Eric Clapton was asked to play on Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions LP he stated “not without Hubert”[/pullquote]- flat out refusing to join the sessions unless his hero, Mr. Sumlin was present and participating. Outside of a short period joining Muddy Waters band, Hubert was Howlin’ Wolf’s true right hand man – staying with him right up until the end, January 10, 1976, when the world lost one of the giants of music, the great Howlin’ Wolf.
I would definitely like to take a moment here to mention how important I feel Hubert Sumlin’s solo recordings are. Sumlin had released numerous albums over the years that showcase his influential style greatly. Some of those great discs are Hubert Sumlin’s Blues Party, Heart & Soul, Blues Guitar Boss and the great About Them Shoes. For my money, the finest Hubert Sumlin solo album is 1998’s great Wake Up Call. Put on any track on Wake Up Call and just sit back and listen to the master at work. This album, to me, is literally textbook Hubert Sumlin, and something every Blues musician needs to listen to and own. The guitar work is a lesson on each track. Hubert’s voice is strong and grasping for your attention reminding us that he also has a great voice to go with his legendary guitar playing. Thanks to Jimmy Vivino for producing the album and putting Hubert in a proper setting, allowing him to do his thing! Even if you’re familiar with all of the classic Howlin’ Wolf tunes Hubert has played on, do yourself a favor and check out all of his solo work as well. It’s all classic stuff.
The fact that Hubert Sumlin is not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is mind boggling. There is a list a mile long that we can all come up with of performers we righfully think should be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. However if you really narrow that list down to the true founding fathers of the music, Rock n Roll, and the guitar styles which certainly define it, Hubert Sumlin is, in my opinion, #1 on that list. Sumlin was playing the “Rock n Roll Style” before it was even called “Rock n Roll.”
Listen to any of Howlin’ Wolf’s great sides recorded in Chicago on Chess Records and you will hear the blistering, wild guitar of Hubert pushing the instrument far beyond it’s limits! These songs and their unrestrained playing influenced Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix without a doubt. Now we all know how much the 3 players I just named have influenced Rock n Roll, so if they learned from Hubert, it only makes perfect sense that he too should be in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here-The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame has done some great things bringing the public’s attention to alot of the music’s founding fathers. Howlin’ Wolf was inducted in 1991, our own Buddy Guy was inducted in 2005, and countless other legends have been honored over the years. The importance of the induction itself varies from person to person. Some people seem to think it really doesn’t matter, other’s feel it’s just a nice thing for a legend to have the honor bestowed upon them, especially during their living years. I’m in the latter group on this one. What a great thing it would have been to let Hubert enjoy an induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and witness a ceremony honoring him for the creation of music he was surely an architect of while he’s was still here with us. Sadly, it is too late for that to happen now. But Hubert’s life and accomplishments should still rightfully be honored by an induction. Inducting Hubert Sumlin into the RnR Hall of Fame, would have surely put a smile on the man’s face as he is looking down from Blues Heaven.
Legends truly are few and far between. Hubert Sumlin is the definition of the word. Anyone who picks up a guitar today owes the man a huge debt. Let’s give the man all the credit he deserves. Thanks Hubert, for all of the great times, for sharing your life with us, and of course, for the music. Rest in peace our friend, Hubert Sumlin.