The significance of Hubert Sumlin's contribution to modern electric guitar playing cannot be underestimated as he has influenced a generation of rock superstars (not to mention all the blues players who idolize him). Players like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and many others consider Sumlin a major influence on their playing. He is also one of the last living connections to an era (1950's Chicago electric blues guitar) that produced so much monumental music.
Sumlin, one of 13 children, was born November 16, 1931 on a farm near Greenwood, Mississippi and grew up in Hughes, Arkansas. He learned to play drums and guitar as a small child and was playing at parties and local jukes by the time he was 12 years old. Sumlin left home at 17 to tour clubs throughout the South with his childhood friend James Cotton. Both men went on to become major players in the Chicago blues community, sharing time with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. However, it was Hubert's 26 year association with Wolf that helped him make his mark in the blues world and music history.
Sumlin was 11 when he first met Wolf while trying to sneak into a juke joint Wolf was playing at. The rest is history. Sumlin ended up playing with Wolf off and on over the next several years and in 1954, he joined the Howlin' Wolf band full time and moved to Chicago. He toured with Wolf for two years before leaving to join Muddy Waters, with whom he played for about a year. This was after one of Sumlin's spats with Wolf forced him to leave the band, which happened on occasion. They could never stay mad at each other for long however, as Sumlin looked up to Wolf and they had a father/son like relationship throughout their lives. After returning to the Wolf fold, he remained lead guitarist until the great singer's death in 1976.
After Wolf's death, Sumlin took some time off before returning to music and establishing himself as a solo artist. Sumlin also became close friends with Stevie Ray Vaughan (and on occasion still wears the trademark "music note" guitar strap that Stevie gave him). He said "I don't play everything, but I play what you like ... I play a little blues."
Hubert Sumlin's performance on September 7th was one of those rare shows that was absolutely fabulous on several different levels. First, Sumlin is one of THE blues guitar icons still living today. And for that reason alone the show was worth its weight in gold. You can hear Sumlin's distinctive (and influential) guitar playing on many of the Wolf's classic recordings. Two signatures of his guitar style are the way he slides on the strings, like in "Killing Floor" or "The Red Rooster," and the way he uses those cool little bends, like the "Smokestack Lightning" riff. Just going back and listening to the guitar parts on those classic Howlin' Wolf records adds a whole new perspective to the songs. Hubert was actually the guy who put much of that music together with Wolf. Wolf would come up with the words and he would get Hubert over to his place and they would work out how the song should sound with Hubert coming up with the music. So just seeing Hubert Sumlin playing his guitar was an absolute treat.
On another level the music itself was very impressive. This was not just another stroll down memory lane (although that isn't so bad either). With some of the older blues players the musicianship often begins to fail at some point, however this was NOT the case with Sumlin. He was on fire this night at Famous Dave's and pulled out stinging guitar solos and deft rhythm playing that left me and many in the audience with a smile on our faces most of the night. It also didn't hurt to have a superb backing band, The Butanes, with Curt Obeda on guitar, John Lindberg on bass, and Rob Stupka on drums. Curt had actually played with Sumlin back in the 80's during his time in Chicago and he recounted a number of amusing stories from those times, both while on stage and between sets, to the delight of the audience. Not only did we get to see Hubert Sumlin play we got to see and hear some spectacular playing by a blues guitar legend who will turn 71 on November 16, 2002.
Just Plain Good Old Fun
And on another level Sumlin and the band were having so much fun on stage, laughing, smiling, recalling past times, that it was contagious. Curt was lavish (almost to the point of gushing) in his praise of Sumlin (and rightly so) and Hubert, who is such a nice, sweet man, was just beaming all night. In fact, I think the appreciation he was getting from both the band and the audience pushed things up a notch with Sumlin rising to the occasion. This was another of those memorable blues nights at Famous Dave's where the audience arrived early (to hear the music) and stayed until the very end - with Hubert coming back out for an extended and well deserved encore.
Throughout the show Hubert was running his finger up and down the fret board real fast and Curt commented that whenever Hubert did that he was having a ball. Well he was doing that all night long and I think he was having even more fun than the audience, who were ecstatic. This was another of those memorable shows that we will be talking about years from now.
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