Blues Legend Hubert Sumlin 1931-2011 RIP

Howlin’ Wolf’s
guitarist was revered by several generations’ worth of music lovers and
innovators.

 

By Fred Mills and Rev. Keith Gordon

 

One of the great blues guitarists – and one of the last
remaining links to the golden era of Chicago and
Mississippi
blues – has died. Hubert Sumlin, whose supple yet stinging licks powered scores
of Howlin’ Wolf’s best-known songs, passed away yesterday, Dec. 4, at the age
of 80. According to news reports, his death was from heart failure and he had
been in a Wayne, NJ, hospital. It’s also said that the
Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards had helped Sumlin out with some of his medical
bills this year.

 

BLURT contributor Rev. Keith Gordon, of the Blues.About.Com
blues blog
, writes:

 

“Born in Mississippi, but raised in Arkansas, Sumlin taught
himself to play guitar. At the age of 10, he fell through the window of a local
juke-joint while trying to catch a glimpse of Howlin’ Wolf’s performance. The
mighty Wolf allowed the young Sumlin to stay and watch the show, beginning a
life-long friendship. Sumlin would form his first band with school friend James
Cotton and guitarist Pat Hare, and they would perform on Howlin’ Wolf’s radio
program out of West Memphis,
Arkansas.

 

“When Wolf moved north to Chicago
in 1954, he took Sumlin with him. After a couple of years of performing under
Wolf’s stern hand, however, Sumlin jumped ship to Muddy Waters’ band, but after
a year of heavy touring, he returned to back up Howlin’ Wolf, which he would
continue to do until Wolf’s death in 1976. By that time, Sumlin had already
recorded several solo albums, so he just continued in that direction, recording
infrequently but touring constantly, appearing at blues festivals around the
world.

 

“Sumlin won a Blues Music Award for his 2004 album About Them Shoes,
which included guest appearances from friends and admirers like Eric Clapton,
Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Bob Margolin, and others. The guitarist was
inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2008. Diagnosed with lung cancer in
2002, Sumlin had a lung removed, gave up smoking and drinking, and went back on
the road with renewed energy. A one of a kind talent, Sumlin’s contributions to
the blues are legend. He will be missed by family, friends, and his many fans
around the world.”

 

***

 

To add a brief personal note: yours truly was privileged to spend part of an
afternoon with Sumlin in Charlotte,
NC, in 1986. Local musician
Sumner Burgwyn, along with Jim Kent, had made a 72-minute documentary on Sumlin
titled Living the Blues (Juke Joint
Productions), and the filmmakers were able to bring Sumlin to town for the film
premiere. As music editor for the local alternative weekly in Charlotte at the time, I previewed the film
and talked to Sumlin. Impeccably attired in a powder-blue suit and matching
fedora, he was a gentle and gracious a subject as I’d ever had, casually
fielding my fanboy questions about Wolf and other blues legends he’d worked
with over the years. He was also happy to autograph some of my records, and
even offered me a swig from the silver hip flask he would occasionally pull out
from his jacket pocket and take a nip from.

 

I declined the whiskey, but now I wish I had accepted it. I mean, how many kids would be
able to say they passed a flask back and forth with Hubert Sumlin? Rest in
peace, sir.

 

 

 

 

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