Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s great riff-maker and true original guitar stylist, died yesterday at age 80 of congestive heart failure.
We can thank Hubert for those cool riffs on Smokestack Lightnin’, Killing Floor, and Back Door Man. Jimmy Page should at least foot the bill for his funeral since he took so much of his repertoire from him (and from Willie Dixon, of course). It is impossible to imagine a Chicago Blues sound without Hubert’s guitar. He is probably the most influential and least known guitarist (publically, but certainly not professionally) of that golden Chess Records era.
I first saw Hubert at Antone’s in Austin, Texas in 1983 (or was it ’84?). He was with the house band! But there he was, playing riffs and solos with his thumb and slapping chords with his fingers. He wore a dapper felt hat and had a broad smile on his face. It was like witnessing a god in the act. He wasn’t the flashiest or even the smoothest player (although he was, at times, both flashy and smooth), but those riffs were real, and I can’t think of a better complement to the growly mood of Howlin’ Wolf’s deep ROOOOAAAR than Hubert Sumlin’s sweet eerie sounding guitar.
Word was that after Howlin’ Wolf’s death in 1976 Hubert hit hard times. As the story goes, Clifford Antone heard about his financial problems and helped him move to Austin. Antone even let him live in the club for a while until he could get his feet back on the ground. I don’t know how much of that is true, but if there was ever a man who seemed like he actually lived in a blues club it was Hubert Sumlin. On stage he seemed to have risen from the smoke. I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else.