His eyes and demeanor expressed it all...the surprise and the loneliness of a survivor who's still maintaining after close friends and co-workers had long been gone. At 68, Hubert Sumlin is a man who's moving forward in the world, but not putting down roots in this world anytime too soon. He's looking for...waiting for...something. He has his fans, his work and a permanent gig pretty much anywhere he wants to play. He has his health and can still play the guitar licks that made him famous. He looks good: slender, well dressed, complete with hat. It sure looks like the blues life is treating him pretty good. But it's his eyes that give him away. From his room with a view, the blues is lonely. He "misses them", he says. He misses his peers and road buddies. He's doing fine these days, but "Damn", he recollects, "We sure had us some good times!"
I had a scheduled time to meet with Mr. Sumlin for an interview before his set that Saturday afternoon. But when I got to the backstage trailer, he was being inundated with attention from fans, festival staff, musicians and fellow members of the press. I waited for the buzz to settle down
and watched Hubert as he sat in an old easy chair in the corner of the trailer, interacting with the people. For a brief instant, he looked up to catch my eye as if to say 'Sorry, I'll be with you in a minute.' When our eyes met, though, I caught a glimpse of a man having a difficult time being a blues icon, a surviving member of Chess Records' royalty. He wasn't having any problem holding court and telling the old stories. In fact, talking about it helps him stay connected to friends he loved and to a champagne time in his life. But each retellling reminds him that they're gone. How long before he'd be gone too?
I listened in on the conversation going on next to me, Hubert talking with the rival media. Like a griot, he tells the anecdotes over and over, the stories sometimes fracturing into incongruent bits and pieces. "Wolf fired me so many times I lost count"; "You know it was me and Cotton that started together. I played with him first."; "Yea, Wolf and Muddy was always trying to get one up on each other." Sometimes the story lines would overlap, sometimes they contradicted. It took patience to listen to the fragments and follow the flow of events without getting lost in the barrage of images. At one point, it seemed like even Hubert got lost a couple times, pausing at the blurred line between what he actually remembered and what it was he was expected to remember. His recall was pretty cryptic, giving just enough information to confirm what is already known, but careful enough not to reveal anything that might betray the memory of his friends. As I listened, I could tell there was more beneath the surface that Hubert Sumlin wasn't about to reveal to the press or to anyone else.
Intrigued, I watched and listened until the door to the trailer opened and Carl Weathersby stepped in. Carl and his band had already performed the day before at Bayfront. They were excellent, playing the kind of blues that festival patrons want to hear...Chicago driven with a contemporary edge of soul. Carl's vocals were smooth, rich and cultured. His guitar playing that night put him way ahead of the current flock of young producer-molded guitar-slingers. His notes resonated tight and true. As Carl moved into the trailer, Sumlin caught his eye, but continued his previous conversation. Acquiescing to the elder bluesman, Weathersby took a chair to my right. Hubert was on my left, so that put me right in the middle of these two black bluesmen. Carl waited for Sumlin's attention, then spoke first.
"Mr. Sumlin...a pleasure, sir. I came back to check you out." "Weathersby, right?" Hubert countered, obviously knowing who Carl was since both play in Chicago. Nevertheless, Carl smiled with pride that his work was being acknowledged. Sumlin continued: "You was here yesterday, right?" As Carl confirmed that fact, Hubert leaned back in his chair, proud he wasn't caught short on remembering the active black guys in the blues. The other musicians in the trailer were pacing around restlessly, especially the guys who were going to back Hubert that afternoon for the gig: Robb Stupka, drummer; John Lindberg, bass; Tom Hunter, piano and Sean Chambers, who came in from out of town to play rhythm guitar. The band was locked in and ready to play, just waiting to talk over details with Hubert to find out what it was he wanted to do. Someone leaned over to talk to Carl, cutting short his conversation with Sumlin. I took advantage of that moment in time to talk with Hubert. When I leaned to my left to speak to him, he leaned in so close to me that I could smell his cologne. I didn't know how long I would have to talk so I went right to a question that I knew no one else would ever ask him. I asked him about my favorite subject, a question that took him completely by surprise.
"Mr. Sumlin, blues lyrics...especially Delta blues...talks about workin' the roots, black cat bones, Mojo hands, that kinda stuff. Why is that?" He looked at me for a while before he responded: "Muddy always said there was some kinda power in music...not just blues...all music. He believed it. I believe it. It's about how you make the people feel. It comes from you(He points to his heart). If you don't send it, they don't get it. What's a little girl like you doin' askin' that?" Before I could answer, Weathersby grabbed his attention again with a question about his guitar. "Whaddya playing, man?" "Silvertone" Hubert replies, breaking contact with Carl to rest a hand on my shoulder. His eyes quietly hold me. "Why'd you ask me that?" Looking back at him, my eyes didn't falter. "Because I figured you'd know the answer. Because it's something I'm interested in." Softening up now, Hubert responds: "Well, you know once when Wolf fired me, I was with Muddy Waters for about 6 months. I learned a lot from Muddy about how to present yourself on stage, how to work the crowd. Now, Muddy really knew how to please the people. He said music had power and I believe him."
Sumlin looked at his watch. I knew my scheduled time was running down. But being the blues fanatic I am, I just couldn't help myself. I had to hear a Chess Records' story directly from this royal blue source. So, I asked him about Walter Jacobs:
Jacquie: Did he really have a hot temper?
Sumlin: Hot temper?!? (He leans in close again, and again I can smell his cologne) Walter was a mean sombitch! He jumped off the stage once and jus' went up to this big guy in the audience and pow!...hit him for throwin' a bottle at Jr. (Wells) on stage...bottle hit him in the forehead. We don't know how Walter knew which guy it was, but he sure hit him, knocked him down!
Jacquie: Are you playing around Chicago much?
Sumlin: Had to get out of Chicago. I live in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) now. I still go to Chicago, get together with Cotton. You know, me and him jus' about all that's left. James always wanted to play like Little Walter. Course, he's got his own thing now, but he wanted to be like Walter. Everybody did.
Jacquie: Who'd you want to be like?
Sumlin: I always wanted to play jazz. I just like the way jazz sounds. But then, I was so dumb, I thought Charlie Patton was jazz.
Jacquie: I overheard you say you were 8 when you first started playing.
Sumlin: My mom bought me my first guitar. It cost her a full weeks' pay...8 dollars. She worked at a funeral home.
Just then, Sean Chambers walked over. "Let's go, man". Interview over. Time for the gig. Hubert snaps the brim of his hat up in "stage-ready" position, says to Sean: "You got my guitar, man?" Chambers, wearing two guitars, walked down the trailer stairs heading out toward the back of the stage. Sumlin, at full height this time, leaned over and asked me to stay for the set. I told him I wouldn't miss it and to just look for me at the front of the stage. "I'll find ya" he said, as he left the trailer and headed for the spotlight.
This interview is copyright © 2000 by Jacquie Maddix, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.