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Hubert Sumlin Profile

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Chicago blues legend Hubert Sumlin

Chicago blues legend Hubert Sumlin

Photo by Tasos Katopodis, courtesy Getty Images

Born: November 16, 1931 in Greenwood MS

Died: December 4, 2011 in Wayne NJ

An unassuming musical genius and one of the most important and influential of the modern era Chicago blues guitarists, Hubert Sumlin earned his stellar instrumental reputation backing the larger-than-life blues legend Howlin' Wolf for better than two decades. Although he has pursued a successful, albeit understated solo career for almost three decades, Sumlin's enormous influence can be heard in the playing of blues and blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Bloomfield, among many others.

Learning With James Cotton

Born in Mississippi, Sumlin lived there during his early years, moving to Arkansas at the age of eight. It was around this time that Sumlin began to teach himself to play guitar, starting with a single string that his brother had tacked to a wall, diddley-bow style. Later, his mother spent a week's pay to buy him an acoustic guitar, on which he began to learn the rudiments of the blues. At the age of ten, while watching Howlin' Wolf perform at a local juke-joint, Sumlin fell through the window onto the stage. Wolf allowed the youngster to remain and watch, beginning a life-long friendship.

Sumlin met young harp player James Cotton at school. Cotton was also learning his instrument, but had ambitions, so he and Sumlin put together a band with guitarist Pat Hare, who had played with Bobby "Blue" Bland. Adding a piano player and a drummer, they performed at area juke-joints for nickels and dimes. Sumlin's playing was influenced by records that he heard by Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and others. Thanks to bluesman Howlin' Wolf, who had a 30-minute program on a local West Memphis, Arkansas radio station, Cotton and Sumlin were given 15 minutes to play their own music on the air.

Goin' To Chicago With The Wolf

With a higher profile due to their radio program, Cotton and Sumlin (with Hare) became a popular draw. When Howlin' Wolf relocated to Chicago, he soon asked Sumlin to join him, and the young guitarist moved north sometime around 1954. But after a couple of years playing in Chicago with Wolf, a stern bandleader, Sumlin jumped ship to Muddy Waters' band, which would pay him three times as much. Sumlin lasted about a year with Waters before the rigorous tour schedule changed his mind, and he rejoined Wolf's band, much to the big bluesman's bemusement.

Sumlin would remain with Howlin' Wolf some 20 years, until the blues legend's death in 1976. It's Sumlin's slashing guitar that you'll hear on classic Wolf songs like "Wang Dang Doodle," "Smokestack Lightning," and "Killing Floor" that were recorded during the 1950s and '60s. When an ill Wolf was sent to England to record The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions in 1971, the label wanted Sumlin to stay behind in favor of superstar collaborators like Eric Clapton. Sumlin would be included in the sessions at Clapton's insistence.

Sumlin's Solo Career

Sumlin recorded several solo albums while part of Wolf's band, usually for European labels. He ventured into the studio as early as 1964, recording with pianist Sunnyland Slim and bassist Willie Dixon while in Germany with Wolf as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. France's Black & Blue Records label released Sumlin's My Guitar & Me in 1975 and Groove in 1976, but the guitarist's solo career in the U.S. began with the 1986 release of the critically-acclaimed Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party on the Blacktop Records label.

Sumlin would follow his U.S. debut with Heart & Soul in 1989 and Healing Feeling in 1990. In the years since, Sumlin has continued to record and tour, the guitarist especially remaining a large festival draw in Europe. Sumlin has won several coveted Blues Music Awards, including "Traditional Album of the Year" in 2006 for About Them Shoes, "Best Instrumentalist - Guitar" in 2007, and "Traditional Blues Artist of the Year" in 2008. Sumlin was inducted into The Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 2008.

Recommended Albums: Sumlin's I Know You, released in 2000, is widely considered as one of the guitarist's most inspired solo works while the 2005 album, About Them Shoes, ranks close behind. Of course, to hear Sumlin at his youthful peak, Howlin' Wolf's classic Moanin' In The Moonlight album features the guitarist on a wealth of the Chicago blues giant's biggest and baddest songs.

Hubert Sumlin - Select Discography
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