Hubert Sumlin, 1931-2011

Two performers whose work I enjoy greatly left us this week: singer Dobie Gray, who crossed over Tuesday, December 6, at the age of seventy-one, and guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who passed on Sunday, December 4, at the age of eighty. I may get back to Dobie Gray soon, but I wanted to use what limited time and energy I have this morning to write briefly about Sumlin.

Sumlin was, of course, best known as the lead guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf. For most of the years between 1955 and the Wolf’s death in 1976, it was Sumlin who delivered the stinging leads that complemented the Wolf’s work on vocals and harp. In the past few days, I’ve seen many references to Sumlin’s work on “Smokestack Lightning,” the 1956 track for which Sumlin provided a striking and unsettling riff. I imagine the track has been cited this week not only because of its musical quality but because its current use as the background for a pharmaceutical television commercial has made it familiar to those who know little about Sumlin, the Wolf or the blues.

Well, at least those folks thus informed get an idea – limited as it is – as to how good Sumlin was and how essential he was to Howlin’ Wolf’s vision of the blues.

I was lucky enough to see Sumlin in concert last March as he and Honeyboy Edwards and a few others joined the Big Head Blues Club to celebrate the centennial of Robert Johnson’s birth. Sumlin – who died, according to news accounts, from congestive heart failure – was breathing with an oxygen tank and sat down to perform. But his riffs were good, his vocals were strong and his smile was broad.

Sumlin’s solo career – according to All-Music Guide – began with the 1975 album My Guitar & Me and continued, based on the listing at AMG, through 2007’s Treblemaker (an album about which I know nothing). One of the highlights cited in the past few days is About Them Shoes, a 2003 album on which Sumlin is joined on various tracks by Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Keith Richards, Bob Margolin, James Cotton and other luminaries. That one is high on my list of essentials to add to the collection.

I do have, however, Sumlin’s 1989 album Heart & Soul, which he recorded with Cotton and with the modern-day group Little Mike & The Tornadoes. Here’s Sumlin and his version of “Sitting On Top Of The World,” which Howlin’ Wolf wrote and then recorded with Sumlin on guitar in 1957 and which Sumlin played and sang last March when I saw him in Minneapolis.*

Here’s a link to the Washington Post piece about Sumlin’s death.

*I should note that though Howlin’ Wolf evidently claimed writer’s credit (as Chester Burnett) on “Sitting On Top Of The World,” the song – and variations thereof, very common in the blues tradition – predates the Wolf’s career by years. The earliest version of the song that I’ve heard was recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930.

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Hubert Sumlin, 1931-2011”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    I learn about a new “Echo” almost every visit, it seems. Thanks for being you, whiteray. ….

    I gotta get me a new guitar tuner, a “Rocket 88”, and a matchbox for my clothes. As Leadbelly noted, ‘I don’t want no suitcase on my load.’

    Then I’ll drive till the Saudi dessert is dry of oil — ‘then I’ll be sittin, you know where, on top of the world!’

    Requiescat in pace, Hubert Sumlin.

  2. jb says:

    Late responding to this, but I wonder what Howlin’ Wolf would think of his song being used in a Viagra commercial. Pretty sure the Wolf never needed such a thing, and I suspect he still doesn’t, even though he’s been dead 35 years.

  3. Paco Malo says:

    jb, I’ve got a long-standing policy about any of the music I love being used in commercials:

    “Don’t sell my culture!”

Leave a Reply