One of the few guitarists who deserves to be called legendary, Hubert Sumlin, died yesterday at the age of 80. Sumlin was the lead guitarist for Howlin Wolf’s band and in the 50s and 60s, on tracks like “Killing Floor” and “Smokestack Lightning,” laid down some of the most influential guitar licks of all time. Hubert Sumlin was the guitarist that Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck grew up wanting to be.
Sumlin and Howlin Wolf had a stormy, mentor-protege relationship, which created opportunities for Wolf’s arch-rival Muddy Waters to hire the brilliant sideman away a couple of times. Since Wolf generally despised and looked down on Waters, that had to sting, but Sumlin always found his way back.
After Howlin Wolf died, Sumlin headed his own band and toured constantly, but he never established a status as a headliner that was commensurate with his talent. Part of the reason was Sumlin’s persona was so contrary to the big, bad bluesman that people like Wolf helped make a cliche. Sumlin was a self-effacing, reserved and almost shy man, who seemed content to play his guitar and indifferent to the spotlight.
I saw Hubert Sumlin play live twice. The first was in the late 90s, and it was probably the best guitar performance I’d ever seen (the only real competition was Kenny Wayne Shepard back in his prime). It was a thrill to be in a small, barroom crowd of 100 people or so watching Sumlin stand on stage, smiling, and effortlessly ripping off his trademark, galloping guitar riffs.
The second time was at a Blues Festival in 2003, and he literally played while sitting on the stage and reclining on a beanbag chair. I didn’t see his name on the touring circuit since then, and he was obviously in declining health, but I count having seen Hubert Sumlin play live as one of the great musical experiences of my life.
RIP, Hubert Sumlin.