On a cold winter morning, before you had your first cup of coffee, Hubert Sumlin’s guitar was permanently hushed in a funeral home in an anonymous town in New Jersey. Mick Jagger and Keef footed the bill because that’s what you do when you have a billion bucks built off the clean yet filthy guitar lines that once exploded from the guitar of Howlin Wolf’s chief scientist.
Hubert Sumlin isn’t a household name. Never was. You certainly won’t be reading about him on your favorite tastemaking blog because that’s not the way to hemorrhage clicks or snatch ad dollars. Vitamin Water and Converse aren’t sponsoring his funeral. This is about the death of one of the leaders of the first Wolf Gang. Mississippi-born, Arkansas-bred, Hubert Sumlin — one of our last great links to the old blues as it was once moaned in the Delta, bewitching and baleful and spiteful as a spurned politician.
Like any great artistic arc, you can trace Sumlin’s style to the O.G.s: Charlie Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, and Son House. Muddy Waters and Wolf too. Sumlin first encountered the latter when he was ten years old, already a nascent guitar picker, attempting to soak up game standing on a pile of coke crates outside the local juke joint. The lure of the music was so strong that he accidentally fell through the window onto the stage. The owner wanted to toss him, but Wolf insisted that the pre-teen have a seat on-stage to watch. Wolf later took him home to his mama’s house and requested that the little boy not be punished. A decade later, after hearing about the band that Sumlin had started with James Cotton, Wolf summoned him north to join one of the greatest lineups ever assembled.
So Sumlin’s legacy smoked in great wind-wrecked Chicago, where he, Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rodgers, and Little Walter helped build the northern blues sound. It was faster than its Southern counterpart. Listening to the records and the grainy videos that survived, you can hear the slick imprint of city living and elevated train rumbling. Elwood and Jake never scooped up Hubert, but everyone makes a mistake sometimes. Few blues brothers were more brolic.
There’s an old possibly apocryphal story told about a dust-up between the Sasquatch-sized Wolf and his younger counterpart. Allegedly, Sumlin skipped a gig in Little Rock for reasons unknown. When he showed up on the bus to rejoin the band, Wolf let him in, only to open up the doors and defenestrate Sumlin from the moving vehicle. It cost him two front teeth. So when Wolf’s band had a gig a few nights later at Silvio’s, a legendary defunct nightclub in the Chi, Sumlin calmly walked up to his bandleader, decked him, and took a few of his teeth as collateral. They both laughed and went back to work.
Listen to what should now be creaky guitar lines on “Moanin’ At Midnight.” Or “Red Rooster” or “Smokestack Lightning.”Set down to tape some odd 50 years ago, Sumlin’s lines still stab and shake, they roll under the drum beat, stealthy as a stowaway but ready to rumble at the latest provocation. Sumlin could play the guitar like he was picking it with a scalpel or with his teeth. But it was always his fingers and you can feel the blood. The lines are jagged and patient, never showy but subtly brilliant. You don’t know Sumlin’s name because he never wanted to be the star. You don’t think of the guitar when you think of Howlin Wolf. You think of his voice, that ancient alluvial rot gut rasp that inherited the pain of centuries of bondage and bad relationships. But when you listen closely, Sumlin is everywhere, camouflaged, waiting to rumble when the lights dim. As Sumlin once said: “Hubert was Wolf, Wolf was Hubert. I got to where I knew what he wanted before he asked for it, because I could feel the man.”
We don’t need to play the influence game. Clapton. The Stones. The Doors. Hendrix. We still stalk the landscape that his guitar lines sketched. Could it have existed without Sumlin? Maybe. But things wouldn’t have been nearly as potent. Every great singer needs an accomplice with apostolic capabilities. That was Sumlin, who was one of the prototypes of the modern era. He never won a Grammy but that only serves to demonstrate the depth of his no-frills no bullshit gifts. Just listen to the songs today and they still carry the shaken stepping razor quality that they’ve always had. Congestive heart failure was the cause, but guys like this never really die, they’re just recycled into a different form of lightning.