As Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitarist, Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011) kept to the shadows, but his sweet, subtle, sophisticated leads were the perfect foil for the big man out front. His name may not have been known in every household, but Sumlin’s playing influenced the likes of Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, Richards, Page and Robbie Robertson. It also caught the ear, heart and soul of guitarist Elliott Sharp. Eventually, Hubert Sumlin would perform and record with Sharp’s band, Terraplane. Sharp sat down one night to talk with Hubert Sumlin, an interview he now shares with PKM.
Like so many other suburban white kids in the mid-1960s, I came to the blues through the music of Paul Butterfield, The Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones. Once I heard the source, the real thing, I was hooked and had to dig in and hear it all. First, the masters of the country blues: Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James all moved me to tears. But the electric sounds hit hard and energized me: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf.
The Wolf’s music really grabbed me: that feral, gravelly voice and the perfect foil, an anonymous guitarist playing wild lines with an acerbic tone: fiery but sweet, guttural but sophisticated. On first hearing “Goin’ Down Slow,” I was floored by the strange and vocal quality of the guitar leads with their aggressive angularity and brilliance. There were no credits listed on the albums and it took me until 1970 to find out that this guitarist was Hubert Sumlin.
“Goin’ Down Slow’-Howlin’ Wolf, voice; Hubert Sumlin, guitar:
“Shake For Me”, “Killing Floor”, “300 Pounds Of Joy”, “Wang Dang Doodle”: all prime examples displaying Hubert’s genius. He was able to give each song a clear identity through a few terse licks filled with emotion, wit, and a Cubist take on melody. Hubert’s playing with Wolf proved to be enormously influential and his sonic DNA may be easily teased out of the playing of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Robbie Robertson, Jimmy Page, and so many more.
I first met Hubert in a Chicago dive in 1983 where he was alternating sets with guitar trickster Lefty Dizz. He was playing a yellow Telecaster with humor and relaxed abandon. We spoke a bit about guitars but I didn’t want to bug him on his break. I was just happy to hear him play, but in fact completely thrilled to actually exchange a few words with this man whose sound had moved me for so many years.
On first hearing “Goin’ Down Slow,” I was floored by the strange and vocal quality of the guitar leads with their aggressive angularity and brilliance.
Vocalist Queen Esther had worked with Hubert when both were living in Austin and through her, my blues band, Terraplane, was booked to back up Hubert at NYC’s Knitting Factory in 1994. I was nervous: could I have ever imagined standing on stage trading licks with one of my all-time heroes? In the dressing room, Hubert was all smiles, calling us “my guys”. We played some hoary classics and a couple of Hubert’s songs to great response.
“Can’t Say No”-Hubert Sumlin-New York 1995 (featuring S.P. Leary, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, Eric Mingus & Elliott Sharp):
The gig was a gas for all and led to my producing some sessions of Hubert’s at a Manhattan studio as well as some live recordings in 1996. Hubert was booked to play a two-night solo stint at a West Village club which we would tape. Before the first night, we sat down at a nearby pizza joint and spoke about many topics, Hubert waxing philosophical.
The show was recorded and after the second night we had an encounter with the club’s owner, so typical of the music business. The plan was to record both nights using the house DAT deck with the deal being that I would take the DAT tapes and give the club owner 1:1 digital copies for his archives. With digital copying, these are absolutely identical. The first night went exceedingly well with Hubert in a great mood and playing some beautifully sweet and insanely wild guitar and singing both his songs and some chestnuts. I took the tape and ran off the 1:1 copy in my studio before returning to the club for the next evening’s show. After Hubert’s set, I brought the copy of Day 1 and asked the owner for the new DAT to copy. He answered in a surly and self-righteous manner, “No! This one is for me.”
Rather than get into it with this pig-headed guy, I just called over Hubert’s manager, Red, and explained the situation. Soon enough, the owner and Red were shouting at each other while Hubert and I stood back and exchanged little grins and eye-rolls. Red finished the argument with the immortal words: “I’m Jewish, too, so God will punish you if you fuck with me.”
End of fight and I’m handed the tape.
The 1996 interview:
Elliott Sharp: You’ve put out a number of records in recent years – what’s your favorite? Your favorite playing?
Hubert Sumlin: I tell you what, it seems to me that Heart & Soul with Little Mike on Blind Pig, it ain’t stopped yet, I still get a little money. The last one was Healin’ Feelin’. About the playing, I don’t know, I don’t know, what it is about the engineer’s got to do with the sound, but I believe it’s something about me that they end up pushin’, go to just comes out, act like they knowing me for years, all my life.
“Got The Blues”-Hubert Sumlin, from the Heart & Soul album:
Elliott Sharp: Do you like recording in general?
Hubert Sumlin: I do, I really do now. I start to play, hey, I found me a style. By listening and looking. I said hey, so, “This is me.” You know cause I’m so used to, a man been called so many things by Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, it got old, he stopped it. From then on, I did what I want to do with the music. By my own sound, I came by all of it after all this happened, after this incident with the Chess brothers.
Elliott Sharp: Did your style start to develop when you worked with Wolf (1953)?
Hubert Sumlin: I think that’s what happened, with him and Muddy. When I first started, he didn’t like what I was doing. I knew it wasn’t right cause it didn’t sound like I was playing with him. So he fired me, kept on firing me … and hiring me. He called me on a date, a date of need, he called me, said “Let’s try it tonight.”
Elliott Sharp: What kind of guitars were you playing then?
Hubert Sumlin: We had Kays, we had Silvertones, me and Jody Williams. I don’t know how many guitars Wolf had. They were Wolf’s guitars.
Elliott Sharp: When you came back to the band, did your style change the way the band sounded? Would you come up with parts, shape the songs? Your guitar parts define the songs in so many ways.
Hubert Sumlin: I came up with the parts, the songs. I got together with the horn blowers, baritone and tenor, and we made “300 Pounds.” When those horns came in, it was the greatest feeling. It’s finally happening, he’s doing his OWN thing! So I put the music to this thing – arrangements in the studio right there before- there was no time – we had a few rehearsals but the horns were always ‘no show’. So it was no problem in the studio. I just told them what parts have to be played… bup bup bup … heh heh. I didn’t get credit for it. At least seeing my name somewhere, that makes me feel good.
Elliott Sharp: It seems like your playing has really influenced all the great players in the world, a fount of inspiration. How does that feel to you, do you reflect on that?
Hubert Sumlin: You know I’m glad to hear that, I’m glad to know that if I touch anybody, even touched one, you get feelings of a million, you’d be surprised how they come. If you ever heard of hypnotising, I know you have, this music, sometimes puts you in a state of hypnosis. Well, this is what it will do to you. Sometime you hear things, hear things coming through and you know it seems that everybody’s hearing them. When I’m reaching an audience, I feel it, I feel it before I’m knowing it.
If you ever heard of hypnotising, I know you have, this music, sometimes puts you in a state of hypnosis.
I feel things that you don’t want anyone to know at any particular time. I think about this, I think about that, not about notes, but I’m going to make it sound right. From now on, I promise me, I want to feel the best, do the best. It’s not that I feel I haven’t paid my dues, I believe you don’t get through paying these things, not until you die, just like you can’t get out of this business, you may get out one year, two years or five years but you coming back, brother, somewhere down the line, like starting to walk, it’s something that helps. Then you going to find that your playing is going places, it starts to help. I feel proud, you feel like you can do anything you want sometimes. It’s a high mountain to climb, this business, sometimes too high but we got to get over it. I believe I can go anywhere in the world and communicate.
I’ve seen a gang of worlds since I’ve been born – we survive. I sit back sometimes and think of Lightning Hopkins and Son House, Bukka White, all these guys – the kind of music they were playing, you still hear it today, it may be scattered, you may not hear it in everybody’s home, but it’s there, it should have gone to the moon. It’s management – they could have pushed it.
It’s a high mountain to climb, this business, sometimes too high but we got to get over it. I believe I can go anywhere in the world and communicate.
Elliott Sharp: Are there singers you’d like to record with or play with?
Hubert Sumlin: There was this girl she sung with me once, long time ago, like Dinah Washington, 14 years old, can’t keep up, don’t know where. Maybe one night I’ll be playing somewhere and she’ll walk in.
Elliott Sharp: When you were young, did other guitarists show you things?
Hubert Sumlin: On the Delta wasn’t too many people that was interested in showing you too much, cause they were trying to work themselves. At that time you had to be good, if you just listened. I tell you I was playing wrong all the time! (laughs) but I tell you I can’t be too bad you know what I’m talking ‘bad’! I got with Cotton (James) when I had my first guitar, the one my mama bought. Cotton went and got this guitar. I saw pictures of Cotton with the clamp on the guitar. I clamped that guitar! My first clamp was a pencil with string wrapped around. I went with Cotton. Cotton said, “I’ll use you!” Me, Pat Hare, Cotton, piano player, drummer. Then I left Cotton, went with Wolf ‘cause Wolf paid more money. Sometimes we’d make 50 cents, sometimes we’d make a dollar for a Saturday night. The whole piece! Things was back then, things were good, things were bad.
Elliott Sharp: Your sound is so unique – so completely your own. What would you say to young guitarists just starting out?
Hubert Sumlin: Define yourself, find yourself! Just like you’d get an answer from a dictionary. Find out what you want to do! I knew at 8 years old what I wanted to do, I figured I’d be the best guitar player. I wanted to be the best at everything I did.”
After our initial work together, Hubert guested with Terraplane on a number of tours and recordings until shortly before his death in December 2011.
Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane w/ Hubert Sumlin, Tracie Morris, Eric Mingus – Live in Teatro Manzoni – Milan, Italy, 2007:
Hubert loved touring: the hang, the story-telling and, of course, playing music to enthusiastic audiences, the most knowledgeable being those in the UK and in western Europe. He had us in stitches talking about how the Wolf band was driving over the Mississippi on a bridge in St. Louis with the string bass tied to the roof until it came loose and went flying into the River!
More chilling were tales of seeing audience members shooting and knifing each other when the band played in some of the rougher rural juke joints. On a tour in England in 2004, Hubert and I went to a London jazz radio station for a double interview and he was shocked at how the DJ seemed to know more about Hubert’s life than he’d even forgotten.
The amazing thing about Hubert is that no matter what guitar he’s playing (and I’ve heard him play just about everything) it always sounds like him
Jimmy Archi at Gibson had gifted Hubert with a beautiful lightweight Les Paul which he debuted at “Howlin’ For Hubert”, a benefit concert at B.B. King’s in 2003 to cover medical expenses after Hubert had to have a cancerous lung removed. There he was onstage three weeks after leaving the hospital. The event included performances by Levon Helm, David Johansen, Eric Mingus, Jimmy Vivino. Michael Hill, Marc Ribot, and myself.
“They Say We Is”-Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane, featuring Hubert Sumlin, from the album Secret Life (2005):
Beginning in 1998, Hubert came over to my East Village studio on a number of occasions to overdub on Terraplane recording projects. He loved drinking coffee and I was always happy to keep cooking up espresso on my Pavoni. In 2005, Hubert had acquired a new Silvertone guitar which he used on some tracks for the album Secret Life. After he finished recording, I was curious as to how he had it set up and was shocked to find the string action to be extremely high. Hubert’s long thin fingers had to be extremely strong to effortlessly get his sounds out of that instrument.
Then I left Cotton, went with Wolf ‘cause Wolf paid more money. Sometimes we’d make 50 cents, sometimes we’d make a dollar for a Saturday night.
The last time I saw Hubert was in September 2011 when he came to Joe Mardin’s Chelsea studio to do overdubs on some tracks for our album Sky Road Songs. On Hubert’s arrival, I was shocked at his frailty – he carried a small oxygen generator with a nasal tube. But he was in excellent spirits as he downed espresso and regaled Joe and I with more tales. I had brought my white Stratocaster and a gold-top Les Paul and Hubert did passes with both, each sounding better than the previous one.
The amazing thing about Hubert is that no matter what guitar he’s playing (and I’ve heard him play just about everything) it always sounds like him. He has an incredibly relaxed right hand and when he picks out his runs, the gesture is more like a gentle brushing of the strings though what comes out of the amp is anything but relaxed! I’ve watched that right hand of his for years and how he does what he does remains a mystery though there’s nothing mysterious about the sound: it’s that vocal cry of the blue.
Howlin’ Wolf and band (Hubert Sumlin, guitar), an amazing live set, Washington, D.C. 1970: