Hubert Sumlin photographed at the Union Chapel, London in 2003. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Hubert Sumlin (November 16, 1931 – December 4, 2011)
Today I bring you two Howlin’ Wolf tracks featuring the dynamic guitar work of the recently deceased Hubert Sumlin. Born near Greenwood, Mississippi on November 16, 1931, Sumlin grew up in Hughes, Arkansas. Besides having one of the most pleasant faces I’ve ever seen on a man, he was one of the most sensitive guitarists I’ve ever heard.
Sumlin should be celebrated as a true American artist. As The Wolf would moan like a man gone insane with lust and too much whiskey, Sumlin’s guitar could pierce through the trance with a sudden and ascending ribbon of sweet, angular notes, suspend it on the edge, before it all plunged down to a percussive, hip-shaking scratch rhythm with the precision of a metronome. The contact point between flesh and steel strings, being a finger-picking guitarist, created much of his distinct sound. He had used a pick until Howlin’ Wolf fired him one day, telling him to go home and practice without one. Returning to work (he always returned) he decided to settle in with the new tone this direct contact afforded him (Redley, 2011).
Hubert Sumlin & Howlin' Wolf at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, England (1964)
Alongside Howlin’ Wolf and his fellow musicians, Sumlin was inventing the future while simultaneously granting the listener a glimpse into something ancient and strange. With a flick of the wrist he could raise horror to joy, or intimate just what a man would drag himself through for a taste of a woman; and Howlin’ Wolf’s music was all about that lascivious hunt. Although technically his boss (and Wolf was certainly a “boss,” taking money out of each man’s pay for social security) their relationship was more complex than your typical paradigm of employer/employee: “It was ‘The Wolf’ who knocked my front teeth out when I told him I was going to tour with Muddy Waters” (Redley, 2011). “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” (Friskics-Warren, 2011). Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, Sumlin played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf’s band from 1954 to 1976, when Wolf’s died from complications of kidney disease at the age of 65.
As for Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett himself, not enough could be said about the man, so for the sake of brevity I’ll quote Sam Phillips (the first to record him, and who later went on to “discover” Elvis Presley) who said in regards to Howlin’ Wolf’s music: “This is where the soul of man never dies” (Gates, 2004).
Hubert Sumlin performs with Howlin' Wolf in 1971. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives
First up is perhaps one of Sumlin’s finest recorded performances: The Willie Dixon penned “Hidden Charms.” Recorded August 14, 1963 in Chicago, the track features Howlin’ Wolf on vocals; J.T. Brown on tenor sax; Donald Hankins on bass; Lafayette Leake on piano; Hubert Sumlin on guitar; Jerome Arnold or Buddy Guy on bass; and Sam Lay on drums.
Like it? Buy it.
On another note, after I graduate my wife would like to move upstate to pursue a more rural life; this song pretty sums up all my sentiments on that matter:
Like it? Buy it.
Another Willie Dixon number (although, and not to take anything away from the man, I believe Dixon was considered more of a lyricist, and perhaps Wolf deserves more of a composition credit) this riot of affection is titled “Little Baby” and was recorded May, 1961 in Chicago, featuring Howlin’ Wolf on vocals; Johnny Jones on piano; Jimmy Rogers & Hubert Sumlin on guitars; Willie Dixon on bass; and Sam Lay on drums.
And lastly, to truly begin understanding where this music is supposed to tickle you, watch the whole sweaty, money waving show below from 1966, featuring Howlin’ Wolf on harmonica &vocals; Hubert Sumlin on guitar; Andrew McMahon on bass; Sam Jones on sax, S.P. Leary on drums; and an inebriated Son House “conducting.”
Dixon, W. Little Baby [recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, 5/61]. On Howlin’ Wolf (“The Rockin’ Chair album”) [CD] Chess. (1962/1990)
Dixon, W. Hidden Charms [recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, 8/14/63]. On Howlin’ Wolf: The Real Folk Blues [CD] Chess. (1965/2002)
Friskics-Warren, B. (2011). Hubert Sumlin, Master of Blues Guitar, Dies at 80. The New York Times. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/arts/music/hubert-sumlin- master-of-blues-guitar-dies-at-80.html?_r=1
Gates, D. (2004). Delta Force. The New York Times. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/13/books/delta-force.html
Redley, S. (2011). Hubert Sumlin R.I.P November 16, 1931. Blues & Soul. 1049 Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.bluesandsoul.com/news_item/586/hubert_sumlin_rip_november_16_1931__december_4_2011/
Yumgui (Poster) (2009, Dec.23). Howlin’ Wolf – 1966 – How Many More Years – The Newport Folk Festival [Video] Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2Iw5aEI3JE