Hubert Sumlin Ready to Burn It Down
I love talking to these old blues cats. For a million reasons, but perhaps the most compelling one is their authenticity. These guys are real, man. They lived it. Hell, they invented it. The chitlin circuit, the bottleneck slide, the duckwalk, the blistering solo, big-legged women, workin’ the mojo, hoochie coochie, jelly roll, squeeze my lemons, all that stuff. This was their contribution to American culture, and it will be here forever.
Hubert Sumlin is one of those guys. Born in the cradle – Greenwood, Miss. – and schooled upriver in Chicago, at the feet of the Howlin’ Wolf. “Wang Dang Doodle.” “Killing Floor.” “Smokestack Lightning.” That was Hubert Sumlin hitting those leads way back in the day.
They say he met the Wolf when he was just a kid, at one of those chitlin circuit juke joints, standing on a stack of Coke crates and peeping in the window. He lost himself that night, they say, and in his trance he fell through that window and onto the stage. The Wolf let him stay up there for the rest of the show. Ten years later the Wolf called Hubert Sumlin up to Chicago.
You can hear his licks when you listen to Hendrix, Zappa, Clapton, Stevie Ray, Keith Richards, Jimmy frickin’ Page. Hell man, even the Beatles worshipped this guy.
He stayed at the right hand of the Wolf right up until the man died in ’76 and kept on rolling. Cat’s been ripping it up since the fifties, man. The fifties!
Guy’s had a heart attack. Had his lung removed. Been ripped off and discriminated against; felt the ache of sorrow, the stab of regret, the empty gloom of loss. And he’s still ticking, still laying it down with six strings and a mouthful of soul at 76 years old.
And he’ll be in town on Saturday as the headliner for the Carolina Blues Festival, a short break from his national tour with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. If you miss it you’re a dumbass.
Because there aren’t too many guys like Hubert Sumlin left in this world, guys who played the blues when the blues was a wailin’, cryin’ baby and nurtured it through its awkward adolescence. They made the blues, and the blues made them.
Hubert Sumlin is as real as it gets.
YES! Weekly: Hubert! How are you?
Hubert Sumlin: Hey man, I got to go. We got that – watchoocallit – rehearsal? They got that bus outside waiting on me. Call me back in about a hour.
[One hour later.]
Y!W: How’d it go?
HS: All right, all right. Everything was all right in the first place. They know my numbers. But you know, they want to make sure.
Y!W: Where are you?
HS: I’m in Florida, yeah man. Orlando. We playin’ tonight.
Y!W: How many shows a year do you play these days?
HS: I play so many I couldn’t tell you. I must be in the Guinness book of records for playing, I guess. I don’t play every night, but almost, you know, for the last couple of years. I been sick and everything, but I play sick. I played in a wheelchair for ten months. Music is a thing that will cure you. I remember Crossroads we did with Eric Clapton. I was so sick when I went out on that bandstand, but I got out the wheelchair just before I got on the bandstand. That music was so good to me, when I started playing I was all right.
Y!W: You started on the chitlin circuit, but you’ve played all over the world. What are some of your favorite places to play?
HS: I tell you what, my favorite place is the United States, but you know I love other places I have been, but not the same, you know? You know, it’s a little old place in Europe, you probably been there, called “Austria.” Not Australia but Austria. It’s a town of old churches. Well let me tell you something, it’s a beautiful place. If I weren’t in the United States, that’s where I would be. But the United States is home. I don’t think there’s a better place than the USA. But Europe? I can remember going over in 1964 with the Wolf, and nobody but me and him from the band. And let me tell you something, those people had the blues before we got there. And let me tell you, we stirred things up. You know what I’m talking about.
Y!W: Hell, yeah!
HS: We didn’t make the money like the Stones, but maybe we had more people than the Stones. We had to turn people away, and we played on large stages.
Y!W: The Stones cite you as a major influence. You influenced everybody. Who influences you?
HS: Eric Clapton. Let me tell you something: When we did the London sessions, the Chess brothers didn’t want me to go. And Wolf says, “You goin’.” I ain’t gonna tell you what he said, I knowed I was goin’. But we got to talkin’ about it, about me goin’, I recall, man. I think the guy was psychic upstairs. I told Eric, “I don’t know, what you think about it?” Eric called Phil Chess. He told Phil, he say, “Look, if you don’t send Hubert over with Wolf, I’m not gonna be there, man.” Let me tell you something: These guys influenced me into playing better. They give it to me and I guess I give it to them. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, oh man he watches me like a hawk. I know what he gonna do, but let me tell you something: This young man can play, man. He can get down to the nitty gritty. He can play the blues. Eric Clapton can do the same thing.
Y!W: And of course there was the Wolf. He had a reputation as a hard man.
HS: I tell you what, he wasn’t a hard man. You know, he was a big man, and there were things, but he was just this cat, you know. And not only that, he was like a baby. He was like a little child. I saw him with some kids, you know, and these kids, man, Mr. Wolf say, “Come on over here and have some ice cream. Whatchoo want?” But come down to business, come down to playing this music, you better play. If you didn’t, I tell you what, he would learn you. He learned me.
Y!W: Howlin’ Wolf told you to stop using a pick.
HS: Oh yeah. I didn’t understand at the beginning because I didn’t want to put my pick down and he fired me. “You go home, son. Leave your stuff. If you put that pick down, you’re hired again. You go home and think about what I’m telling you right now.” I played all this time with the straight pick. Sure enough, in front of about 700 people he fired me. I could’ve killed him. That’s how I felt. But you can’t do that to your father. He was my father. All this come to me at once. I went home and cried and finished cryin’ and put on his records. I’m gonna tell you the truth: I put on this record here and said, “Lookee here, I’m not gonna play with no pick.” I agreed. I picked my guitar up. My fingers got sore, all five of ’em. But when I got it right I forgot about the sore fingers, playing those numbers like we recorded ’em. I played ’em better with my fingers. So I went back to work. Wolf hired me back. In Chicago. In Club Silvio’s. He said to the audience, “Let me see if he do like I asked him. Let me see if he got it.”
Y!W: He called you up on stage? What song did you play?
HS: “Smokestack Lightning”! I knew then, he was right. Wolf was right. He was very smart. He didn’t have an education. When I meet him he couldn’t write his name. He had to put an “X.” A twenty-five-year contract he signed, and he didn’t know. He just put an “X” on there and he lasted five years on his contract until he passed.
Y!W: How’s your health these days? You had a lung removed in 2004.
HS: Oh yeah. Man, I had a heart attack, went back to smokin’, back to drinkin’. But when I had the heart attack, that’s when I saw everything. If I told you, I know you wouldn’t believe it. But I saw a lot of things. I saw a lot of musicians. That’s all I got to say.
I feel nice. I feel 100 percent, I feel so good. I stopped drinkin’, stopped smokin’. Look, I had to. And let me tell you, I feel better than when I was 14 years old. I feel like I can jump over the moon. And I can. But I can’t do the things I used to do as good as I did when I was young. But I tell you what, I’m old enough to know what I’m doing. I know music. I know when I’m right and I know when I’m wrong.
Y!W: You made Esquire magazine’s rock and roll hall of fame this year.
HS: I didn’t know that. Well I’ll be darned.
Y!W: You a married man?
HS: No sir. I been married three times, and the last time I finally found my wife. And she passed, man, in 1990.
Y!W: You still chase women?
HS: Well, I look. But that’s all I can do, man. I love women. I made a song, “Look, Don’t Touch.” Heh heh heh. Also I got a new CD.
Y!W: About Them Shoes.
HS: No, I got a new one. I’m through with it. It’ll be out soon.
Y!W: I’ll be looking for it.
HS: Yeah, man.
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