Hubert Sumlin, 1931-2011

Longtime Howlin’ Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin died this week at age 80. He played with Wolf on and off from 1953 until the singer’s death in 1976. (The YouTube clip features the two performing one of their greatest tunes live in Europe in 1964, accompanied by pianist Sunnyland Slim, drummer Clifton James, and the great songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon.)

I never met Sumlin, though everyone I know who did described him as a mellow, sweet guy. But “mellow” and “sweet” are the last words you’d use to describe his frantic, abrasive sound. I can’t think of another player who better encapsulates a) what I love about great mid-20th-century blues, and b) what I hate about much blues from subsequent generations. 

Sumlin could be sloppy and inconsistent. His groove sometimes felt barely tethered to the rest of the rhythm section. But man, the excitement, the danger, the wire-walking intensity!

Conveniently, this preview clip from the iTunes store captures what may be his greatest solo, the raging tantrum that catapults “Shake for Me” over the moon. (Click on track #13.) It’s the same tune from the video above, but in its astounding studio version. Every note in these 12 bars is unique. The vibrato is never prefab — sometimes there’s none, sometimes he’s strangling the whole damn neck. The slurs and bends are completely unpredictable, never falling on the same beats. Lots of players slide up into their notes — but how many slide up out of them? I swear, it sounds like he’s segmenting his phrases with a meat cleaver.

This is my favorite blues solo, period.

Lots of the obits are emphasizing Sumlin’s influence on British rock royalty. All true and meaningful. But what I value most about Sumlin’s playing is . . . Sumlin’s playing. What a sublime musical spirit!

4 comments to Hubert Sumlin, 1931-2011

  • dave

    What a lot of the modern blues players don’t get is that what made player like Sumlin great was that they sounded like no one else.  Unfortunately too many blues players today sound like Albert King, SRV, etc.

  • Howlin Wolf and Hubert Sumlin are almost the only Blues guys I can listen to. I rip off their vibe on almost all of the swamp noir songs I do. Plus, Hubert makes finger style cool.

    • joe

      Hey Wesley! <—- great player!

      Well, fingerstyle would be cool even if Hubert had used a pick. But we’re happy to have him on our team, along with Cooder, Knopfler, J. Beck, and Seymour D. :thumbup:

    • Does it count as fingerstyle if you are using fingerpicks? The guitarist’s equivalent of if a tree falls. The Howlin’ Wolf documentary, The Howlin’ Wolf Story – The Secret Story of Rock & Roll, has interviews with Hubert Sumlin where he talks about how he didn’t find his sound until he stopped playing with a pick. Check out the scene, it’s cool to see him light up when he talks about this discovery.