Thursday, December 15, 2011

STINGER: The Essential Hubert Sumlin

“Hubert was too humble to be heard."
Mark Hoffman, Moanin’ at Midnight

“Hubert did not talk.”
Evelyn Cowins, Hubert’s second wife

The great blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who passed away last week in New Jersey at 80 years young, had a personality that was about as far away as the sound of his art and still be in the same time zone. He was a God-fearing and soft-spoken kind of man that could only have been raised in a fire-and-brimstone Southern household, one whose talent did not emerge straight away out of the cosmos but came through sheer hard sweat and multiple failures. Like Jackson Pollock, Sumlin found his niche after many starts and stops, but finally centered on a style no one had before synergised: splats and drips and blots of sound, something that took Postwar urban turmoil and made it as gorgeous as it was foreboding.

By now, the sound of Sumlin’s guitar has been an influence on six decades of American music. Just throw a rock: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (who along with Mick Jagger sprung for Sumlin’s funeral last Monday), Jimi Hendrix, Dick Dale, Robbie Robertson, Robert Cray, Robert Quine, Elliot Sharp (who played live shows with Sumlin), Nels Cline, John Mayer, Dan Auerbach, Jack White, Gary Clark, Jr. (Sumlin even appeared in the recent docuseries Metal Evolution as an early influence on heavy metal!) Sumlin’s sound came at you full force and stung you—like you just injured your thumb in a cold Chicago basement. It ripped the black felt off your old-school speakers. It was primal and strange—an attack, invariable referred to as “slashing” or “snarling” or “slithery” or “lacerating” or “firey.” In many ways, it mimicked the strange and primal vocals of Howlin’ Wolf, Sumlin’s bandleader of 23 years. In many ways, it did this because Sumlin had no choice; in his liner notes to Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box, producer Dick Shurman noted, “What musical instrument wouldn’t be overshadowed by that voice?”

Sumlin (L) and The Wolf at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, England (1964)

Sumlin called his guitars “Momma” and the Wolf called Hubert his “Son.” Wolf, who was 21 years Sumlin’s senior, often spoke of shepherding Hubert’s raw talent in unsettlingly dominating terms, claiming he “came into possession” of him in West Memphis when the young guitarist was playing with harp player James Cotton and “partly raised him from a kid.” Despite a six month detour to Muddy Waters' band in 1956, Sumlin was a “kept” guitarist—quite literally, as Wolf once told a journalist, “He fell in love with me and he wanted to stay with me so I just kept him.” In the early 1950s, Sumlin arrived from the Deep South at Chicago’s Illinois Station on 12th Street on a ticket sprung for by Wolf, who sent Muddy Waters' pianist Otis Spann to collect him. Wolf sent Hubert to study scales at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Sumlin originally played with his back to audience, which was part shyness, part paranoia at having his licks copied. Even when he faced the audience, Sumlin would hold his guitar neck almost vertical to his body (like the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman would later do) and stare down at the strings while he soloed, an oasis of calm and concentration in the rowdy and dangerous world of the Southside Chicago juke joint. Once a gunfight erupted and a dead man fell against him on the bandstand.

Both Sumlin and the Wolf brought the ghost of the Delta bluesman Charlie Patton into the amplified eage, partially why the music they made was so raw and tense. “It is an odd relationship to say the least,” noted writer Peter Gurlanick in Feel Like Going Home. “Sumlin is a peculiarly vulnerable sort of man, and Wolf, despite his pious disclaimers, has never had a good reputation with musicians." One of the many canonical stories of the two men was each of them taking turns busting out each other' teeth. Guralnick concluded: "They appear locked forever in a love-hate, affection-spite, typical father-and-son relationship.” (You can hear Wolf admonish Sumlin -- "Hubert! Turn your amp down!” -- on this year’s 4-disc box set Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters.) Sumlin was charitable when speaking on the record about his larger-than-life boss; for awhile, he was reluctant to play Wolf tunes live after his death. “After he passed, I laid down the guitar,” he told writer Jan Obrecht. “I said, ‘That’s it, no more.’ I just couldn’t imagine going on without him…He seemed like he was everything, like Jesus Christ, to me. There wasn’t any getting over that guy, man. They never made anyone else like him.”

Murderer's Row: Sumlin (L), Johnny Jones, Wolf, Andrew McMahon
at Silvio's, Chicago (1964)

Sumlin’s musical development was bookended by public thrashings: His mother once beat him in front of their church congregation for playing a few blues licks; Wolf once booted him off the stage at Chicago’s Key Largo club when he played “Smokestack Lightin’” too fast with a pick. The latter, he said "was the worst whooping I ever got in my life." Spurred by Wolf's admonishment he developed his “fingers only” approach. Colin Linden, a Canadian guitarist/producer, explained Sumlin’s technique to Sumlin biographer Will Romano: “The thing that was really cool about the way Hubert plays…is if you think about the way you hold your hand on a guitar, your thumb is closer to the neck than the bridge—your fingers are behind the bridge, most of the time. Hubert is almost the other way around. His fingers are closer to the neck and his thumb is closer to the bridge. So, he gets more attack on the side of his index finger that is closer to this thumb. He is the only guitar player I have ever met or heard who has this way of attacking the guitar—not just with is right hand but his left hand too.”

Playing with his fingers allowed Sumlin to turn his guitar into a percussion instrument, snapping off each note like one would knee a tree branch. (Guitarist Steve Freund, who played with Sumlin in the mid-70s, compared it to “a drummer using a stick.”) “Weird and amazing are a good summations of Sumlin’s style,” writes Jas Obrecht in Rollin’ and Tumblin’. “He responded to Wolf’s penchant for building songs around a single droning chord by creating unique bass lines, mantra-like riffs, and jagged, staccato fills. His solos were marked by uncommon vibrato and unexpected twists and turns.” Sumlin’s technique was even at full force years after Wolf’s death in 1976; writing of seeing Sumlin live in the late 80s, Jon Pareles of the New York Times marveled: “Mr. Sumlin is a guitarist of few notes, masterfully placed. With his raw tone and extraordinary variety of attacks, he mixes singing blues phrases and slashes of sheer texture—plunking out riffs, squeezing out delicate sighs in the upper register, making single notes moan, or suddenly swooping down for a metallic shriek. Melodically, his solos are almost abstract; against the chugging rhythms of the band, they are terse and cutting.”

But don’t just believe them! Here is the Beast’s 10 favorite Sumlin/Wolf tracks:


Hubert’s personal fave. Recorded January 1956 at the Chess Studios at 4750 South Cottage Grove. Hypnotic, one-chord (E) vamp and slightly offset beat over Wolf’s seething vocals. It drove the British poet Phillip Larkin to oddly proclaim the song “a pure piece of jazz gothic.” As Sumlin later explained to writer Ted Drozdowski, "Wolf made my ass come up with that shit. Hell, I had to play to God! He always used to put me down: 'You ain't doing this! You ain't got that right!' I said, 'Fuck it, who you think you are? Some fuckin' state trooper?' For 'Smokestack Lightning,' Wolf wrote it, and then he made me come up with that part." If the song sounds familiar, it's because its been used in a series of recent Viagra adds. Iggy Pop, a devoted blues fan, must have heard this droning track when he was conceiving of the Stooges.


Both recorded at Chess in August 1964, a session proclaimed by many fans and critics to be Sumlin's finest hour. "Killing Floor" is Hubert's second-best known riff after "Smokestack": A scraping intro leads into a monster, finger-plucked three-chord riff, with Sumlin turning his notes into vocal-like yelps up and down his guitar neck. "Louise" is a showcase for Wolf's oildrum vocals, but Sumlin and second guitarist Buddy Guy (who had just turned 28 the previous month) nearly take it away from him. Guy was brought in as the only guitarist who could rhythmically follow Sumlin's bizarre patterns. Also worth hearing from the same session: "Love Me Darlin'" and "My Country Sugar Mama."


A mournful, horn-laden slow drag dripping in distortion, with Hubert in a particularly peppery mood. Recorded September 28, 1962. Writes Mitsutoshi Inaba in Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues: “Sumlin’s guitar a very important factor that supports this musical drama. When he recorded the backing track, he was of course not hearing the vocal. While making this take, Sumlin had to assume when and how Wolf would come in and how his complementary phrases would fit the imaginative vocal lines. This is a difficult task, even though the musicians spend hours rehearsing with the vocalist.” Hubert later shrugged to an interviewer: “I got to where I knew what he wanted before he asked for it, because I could feel the man.’”


Recorded August 12, 1962. A jazzy, horn-driven anomaly in the Wolf catalogue. (It was previously recorded by R&B singer Charles Clarke.) Hubert reveals a streak of roadhouse Honky Tonk in his solo, which one writer called "one of the wildest of his career."


Wolf’s scariest song. Recorded December 1961. Sumlin’s wobbly, piercing guitar with its strong vibrato is the partner-in-crime to Wolf’s rapist-stalker persona, croaking the title over and over until it ceases to become love and turns into something much worse.


Recorded June 1960. This is the very definition of Hubert's "stinging" style, undoubtedly listened to and copied by oodles of late-60s/early-70s garage rockers. 


Recorded October 1954. A strange, shuffling military-style shuffle with drummer Earl Phillips hitting the bass drum like a piledriver on the first beat of every measure. But Hubert shows how he can be as restrained as he is fiery. 


Recorded April 11, 1966. A tough metronomic pulse powerful enough to split concrete. Hubert again pops out a hypnotic, repeated riff a la "Smokestack Lightnin" and seasons them with quick runs and wails.


Recorded in the same session as "Tail Dragger." Crying, sharp-as-carpet-tacks solo by Hubert, with some impressive note-bending thrown in for shits 'n' giggles.

“I put the music to those records. I'm proud of that. He let me.”


  1. I love the article and the playlist. I'd like to quote you and borrow the playlist, if It's ok with you. Tony