Sunday, December 4, 2011

R.I.P., Hubert Sumlin

Hubert and the Wolf in England, 1964

Howlin’ Wolf’s long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin, passed away today at the age of 80. As the Chicago Sun Times aptly put it, he “put the bite behind Howlin’ Wolf’.”

Sumlin wasn’t as flashy as some of the other Chicago blues guitarists of his generation (e.g., Buddy Guy), but he was undeniably one of the best. Muddy Waters wanted him for his band, but Hubert remained loyal to Wolf, a father figure and fellow Mississippian whom the young guitarist followed through Memphis to Chicago and, eventually, world renown – at least among blues aficionados.

Sumlin’s licks were cutting, concise and always tasteful. He was seldom the only guitarist in Wolf’s band, but he was the mainstay, while the others came and went. He was an essential part of Wolf’s gritty blues sound. “Smokestack Lightning,” “Killing Floor” “Ain’t Superstitious,” “Spoonful,” “Evil,” “Hidden Charms,” “Tail Dragger,” “Built for Comfort” and many others simply wouldn't be the classics they are without Hubert's distinct tone and precise, yet relaxed, playing.

Sumlin is not visible until the last few seconds (stage right) of this video from Wolf’s 1964 English tour, but his slinky, repetitive riffs are evident throughout.

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