Today would have been Hubert Sumlin’s 84th birthday. The great guitarist passed away on December 4, 2011 at age 80. He was one of my favorite guitarists- and also one of the all time great guys, as I learned when I interviewed him for Guitar World in 1994.
Before I ventured uptown to a Manhattan club to interview him, there was no way I could have grasped the warmth, humor and deeply entrenched good-time vibe given off by the guitarist whose pithy, perfectly placed lines put much of the sting into the great Howlin’ Wolf’s most famous sides with Chess Records –easily some of the greatest blues ever recorded.
Walking into the “dressing room” at Manny’s Car Wash, the Manhattan club where Sumlin was performing, and where we were supposed to do an interview, I was immediately surrounded by a dozen or so bodies crammed tight into the tiny room. Most of the occupants were white and in their 20’s, like me, which is to say a different race and some four decades younger than their host, who was holding court with a crooked grin pasted across his face.
I introduced myself, but rather than commencing an official interview, I was swept up into his orbit, and became another party guest. A beer was placed in my hand and we started talking, with my tape recorder rolling. But the tiny room was directly behind the stage, where an opening band was making it hard to hear one another, and was surely obscuring our conversation on the tape. The situation wasn’t helped by the party going on all around us. We chatted until Hubert performed a strong if sloppy first set, then resumed on his break. It was then, I believe, that he invited me back to his room after the show to finish the interview, an offer I accepted. I drank beers and watched Hubert perform until he had wrung the last bit of vibrato out of his purple ESP guitar for the night, which was, of course, actually early the next morning.
At that point, I had had a great night, but was still far from accomplishing my mission. I had filled a 90-minute tape with our rambling, noisy conversations, but I had no idea what was actually on there. As I waited for him to load up so we could go back to his room and finish the interview, I noticed that most of his partying dressing room guests were still hanging around. I started to get a little nervous as I realized that they may well be accompanying us back to Hubert’s room, where I had hoped to have a quiet, one-on-one conversation.
As we headed back to his room, in a relatively cheap and seedy west side Manhattan hotel, we were indeed accompanied by a couple of young blueshounds, including one hippie kid I recognized as a busboy from the Lone Star Roadhouse, at the time still New York’s best roots music venue. This was Rob, Hubert’s “adopted son,” and constant protector.
Back at the room, Hubert had cans of Spam and sardines sitting around. Sitting on the couch was a beat-up hat box held together by duct tape, in which he transported his crisp, beautiful stage Fedora. Once we started talking, Rob and the others sat on the floor, rapt with Hubert’s still sharp memories about his days helping make the music of one of America’s greatest performers even greater. It was a role he relished. Throughout the long, early morning conversation, Hubert never lost his good nature or his mischievous, impish grin. He really was just as nice as his guitar lines were nasty.
We talked the night away and by the time I climbed into a cab to head home, dawn was approaching. I barely had time to get a few hours’ sleep and a shower before grabbing a cup of coffee and heading into work. Everything was a little fuzzy that day, and I wasn’t sure the whole night had really even happened as I had remembered it; it was one of those experiences that is extremely vivid while it’s occurring, but as soon as it’s over, it feels like a dream or hallucination. But a day or two later, I started transcribing my tapes, and they were even better than I had hoped. Here is the entire story:
Hubert Sumlin: The Wolf’s Man
Sumlin’s playing had a particular impact on those rock guitarists who cut and bloodied their teeth on Howlin’ Wolf tunes: Jimi Hendrix, who often covered “Killing Floor”; Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones, who continue to play “The Red Rooster”; Robby Krieger, who helped The Doors remake “Back Door Man”; Stevie Ray Vaughan, who took Sumlin’s signature glissandos and made them a staple of his own bag of tricks, and who paid the blues man explicit tribute on “May I Have A Talk With You,” [The Sky Is Crying]; and Page, Clapton and Beck, all of whom flattered Sumlin by imitating him on “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightnin.’”
Sumlin backed Howlin’ Wolf for 23 years, a stretch broken only by six months in 1956 when he worked for Wolf’s arch-rival, Muddy Waters. After Wolf’s death, Sumlin launched his long-delayed solo career, becoming a Chicago blues club fixture and making occasional festival appearances. Over the past five years, however, he has picked up steam, touring often and recording three albums: 1986’s Blues Party (Black Top), 1988’s Heart And Soul (Blind Pig) and 1990’s excellent Healing Feeling (Black Top). Sumlin seems to truly enjoy performing, grinning broadly as he roams a small New York stage, his purple ESP Strat – a gift from Buddy Guy – held in place by a red and white music-note strap – a gift from Stevie Ray Vaughan.
ALAN PAUL: Did Howlin’ Wolf explicitly tell you what to play?
HUBERT SUMLIN: Not really. When I first got with him, he told me that I wasn’t ready to play his music, so I should go home and think about it for a day, a week, a month or a year, whatever it took. “Come back when you’re ready,” he said. “When you figure out how to play my stuff, then you’re hired.” I went home and prayed and slept with my guitar under my pillow trying to figure something out, because I knew that this man was serious – Wolf did not bullshit.
I had played with a pick for eight or nine years, and I couldn’t put it down. Then I woke up one morning and started playing without a pick, and the first thing I thought of was “Smokestack Lightnin.’” I played it better than I ever had and realized, “I don’t need no pick. I don’t need anything but my fingers.” And that was it.
AP: Everything fell into place when you got rid of the pick.
SUMLIN: Exactly. I started playing with a lot more soul. I never used a pick again – that was my secret to unlocking everything. My tone, my sound, everything happened right then. People can’t understand how I play – the average guitar player don’t know what I’m doing. But it’s my thing. It’s what God gave me; I don’t need a pick, because I got five fingers – how can one pick compete?
AP: One unusual aspect of your style is that you don’t play a lot of chords.
SUMLIN: No, I don’t, but I play a lot of tricks. Like Muddy Waters once said, I’ve got a lot of gimmicks up my sleeves. I know when to get in and when to get out. Lots of guitarists just miss out on that aspect of playing. I know how and where to put it, which is what it’s all about.
AP: Did many of your personal playing trademarks develop as a result of playing with Howlin’ Wolf for so long?
SUMLIN: Yes and no. I also played with Muddy Waters for six months and, Lord, I learned a lot from Jimmy Rogers [Water’s lead guitarist]. I picked up from every guitarist I ever worked with. I’d take a note from here and a note from here, a lick from him and a lick from him, and put it all together – that’s the Hubert Sumlin style. And that’s what I would recommend any guitarist do – listen to players you like and pick things up from everyone and everywhere.
You have to learn how to use your instrument to its fullest. You got five different E’s, you got five different A’s, and you got to use them all. If you’re all over the neck, you’re better. That’s why I never used a clamp [capo] like Muddy or Albert Collins or Jimmy Rogers: Why limit yourself? You’ll notice that kids coming up today play great, and they don’t use a clamp. Because they’ve got better knowledge of the instrument.
AP: There’s one element of your background that’s almost unique among bluesmen: you studied guitar at The Chicago Conservatory Of Music. What was the extent of your formal training?
SUMLIN: I studied for six months with this old guy who was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was the first time I ever saw a dude who played both opera and blues on his guitar. It had a huge impact on me, because I didn’t know the piano keyboard and I didn’t know how to read – I didn’t know an F from an A, an A from a B or a B from a C. That guy showed me so much in just six months.
AP: Even though you always played electric guitar with Wolf, your sound often had a bit of a country blues vibe. Is that where you come from, musically?
SUMLIN: Actually, when I was a kid I wanted to be a jazz player like Charlie Christian more than anything. But I also loved and heard the blues. They were all around me, and at a certain point, I realized how great all these dudes I listened to were: Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, all those guys. Peetie Wheatstraw, the “devil’s son-in-law”: Jesus, man, he was something. Then when I got with Wolf and Muddy I realized that they actually played with these guys, and that blew my mind. I’ll never forget my old 78 of Charlie Patton. He was a wizard, man, a genius. I tried to ask Wolf about him and he said , “Aw, you young punk, you’re too young to understand.” It always hurt me that I missed out on seeing and playing with those old guys, because they wrote the book that Wolf and Muddy electrified and expanded. If Wolf and Muddy were the fathers of rock and roll, then those acoustic guys were the granddaddies.
AP: It sounds like Wolf was very conscious of the age difference between you two.
SUMLIN: Yeah. He told me one time, a couple of years before he died, that he was “40 years too early.” He said, “I plowed mules barefoot in December, with snow on the ground, the dirt frozen as a rock.” I said, “Don’t lie, man.” And he said, “I’m not lying. I’m 40 years too early. Things are getting better all the time.” The next year he got sick and went on a kidney dialysis machine.
AP: It can be said that you are the link between the Delta bluesmen and rock and roll. On the one hand, you played with Wolf, who was a contemporary of Robert Johnson and the other guys you mentioned. At the same time, you also exerted a huge influence on the next generation – rock guitarists who weren’t really all that much younger than you.
SUMLIN: I’m very proud of that, and I got to meet those guys. I met Eric Clapton in 1970 when I played on Wolf’s London Sessions [Chess]. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but Clapton said, “If Hubert’s not there, I don’t record.” Then Wolf said he couldn’t record without me, so they had to bring me. Wolf was on a dialysis machine right in the studio, with doctors tending him night and day. He was so sick that on a couple of nights, we didn’t even record. We just sat in the studio and got high. Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman came in and we partied all night long, man. The cleaning lady came in the next morning and everyone was laying there on the floor. Mick Jagger had his head up inside the bass drum. [laughs] It was wild. We had a ball.
AP: Did you spend much time with Clapton?
SUMLIN: Yes. One day, Eric sent a limousine for me, and we drove for 30 or 40 miles outside of London to his big old mansion in the country. A gorgeous place, like a castle. We had a beautiful dinner, then he took me down to the basement, where he had all these guitars. It looked like a factory – three-and-a-half walls of a room lined with every kind of guitar you can imagine.
He said, “Pick out a couple of those guitars, Hubert. I’m giving you two of them.” I walked all the way around the room, looking at every one of them. Then I saw this case sitting in the middle of the room. I sat down on the floor and said , “What’s in there?” He said, “It ain’t nothing, man.” I asked if I could take a look. He said. “You don’t want that.” I opened the case and took out this beautiful Fender Stratocaster and started playing it there, sitting on the floor.
He said, “Hey, man, I told you to pick any two you want from those that are up against the wall.” I said, “I know, but this Fender sure sounds good. Is it your regular?” He said, “It sure is.” I said, “I knew it, because that’s the one.” He said, “You mean to say you’re going to take it from me, man?” I said, “No, I can’t do it. I don’t want none of these.” He said, “Take it, man. At least I know it’s got a good home. Just promise me that if I ever want it back you’ll give it to me.”
I kept it for two years and hardly ever played it. Then we were both at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and I brought it over to him. He asked me how much money I wanted, if there was anything I needed. I said, “Nothing man, it’s your guitar. Don’t embarrass me.” He just gave me a hug. He’s a nice guy, a beautiful guy.
AP: Did you have any sense that you were making history when you recorded those classic tracks with Wolf?
SUMLIN: No, and I really didn’t care. But I knew that he was going to be one of the greats. And I was so devoted that I wanted to push him to the top. When you’re recording for people the caliber of Howlin’ Wolf, you’re going to do your best. And in those days, there wasn’t even a question, man: you were going to play your guts out. There had been some days in the past when my stomach ached from not having anything to eat. When I recorded, I would remember those days, and remember how I never wanted to go back to them – and I would play!
AP: What kind of personal relationship did you have with Wolf?
SUMLIN: We were like father and son, although we had some tremendous fights. he knocked my teeth out, and I knocked his out. None of it mattered; we always got right back together.
AP: You fought with Wolf? He was a huge man.
SUMLIN: Oh man, he was big – he could wrap one of his fingers around my guitar neck three times. One time after a gig, we were loading up the truck and I wasn’t there, because I’d run off with this cute girl who’d been sitting on my amplifier, smiling at me all night long. When I got back they were just finishing loading, and Wolf was standing on top of the stage. He started yelling at me, calling me every name you ever heard – and some you couldn’t imagine – because he had to load my gear. I was embarrassed, man, because this was right in front of the whole band.
So I thought, “He can’t do this to me. He can’t humiliate me.” So I waited until he was looking the other way, and I hit him in the face as hard as I could. He didn’t move. He just turned back real slow and slapped me with the back of his hand. I fell and rolled down the ramp that was pushed up to the stage to load the amps. I got up and walked back, screaming at him. When I got to the top he did the same thing again, and I rolled right back down, spitting out teeth.
AP: Is that why you left to play with Muddy Waters?
SUMLIN: No. Me and Wolf patched it up right away. In fact, the next morning, my wife woke me up and said that Wolf had been sitting in his car in front of my house all night long. I went out there and he apologized, and gave me money to fix my mouth.
I left to play with Muddy because he tripled my salary. They were rivals, and Muddy wanted to take me away from Wolf.
AP: Was the rivalry between Wolf and Muddy apparent to everybody?
SUMLIN: Sure. They were jealous of one another; they were enemies: “You stole my shit.” “You did this.” “You did that.” It was endless because they were the two biggest dudes in Chicago, and they were always arguing and competing about who was number one. [laughs] I’ll never forget the day we played the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and Wolf and Muddy sat down and talked and made friends. They shook hands and said, “No more enemies.” That thrilled me so much, I went and got a beer. This is a business which we do every day and love to death, and I never understood that jealousy. It’s music. Who cares who’s the best?
AP: What are your memories of Jimi Hendrix?
SUMLIN: He was just a little ol’ dude living in England. It was before his band, the Experience, hit it big. We played in Liverpool, the Beatles’ home, and in walked Jimi Hendrix, a little ol’ hip guy wearing earings and a bandanna. Wolf said, “What the fuck is this guy? I ain’t saying nothing to that motherfucker.” He came right up to Wolf and asked if he could play his guitar. Wolf nodded and Hendrix picked it up, turned it over and played it with his teeth. [laughs] He played the hell out of it. Wolf looked at him, big-eyed, and said, “You hired, man, you hired!” He said, “No, thank you Mr. Wolf. But I admire you and the blues. You guys are 100 percent. Beautiful, man.”
I never played with him after that, but I saw him do his thing in New York, after he hit, and I fell in love. The guy was great! Just a little ol’ skinny youngster. He was in his twenties, but he looked 16 or 17, and he was good, man. I mean, really good.
AP: Hendrix often called you a big influence. Your playing on several tracks from the Fifties represents some of the earliest instances of guitarist using distortion. How did you do that?
SUMLIN: I was just using my Gibson and my Wabash amp, which I used for a long time. It was one of the first amps to have 15-inch speakers. I also got an Echoplex right when they came out, and combined with those 15-inch speakers, that made “distortion.”
AP: What sort of Gibson did you play?
SUMLIN: A Les Paul – I believe it was a ‘56. I often played them. I also had a Kay guitar. For four years, Wolf didn’t have a piano or even a bass – just two guitars and drums, so Jody Williams [Wolf’s second guitarist] and I coordinated our parts closely and decided that we would both play Kays. I didn’t like that Les Paul all that much, but I sure do wish that I had it now. [laughs]