In 1954, at the age of 23, Sumlin was summoned by Wolf to replace his guitarist. And there he stayed for two decades until Wolf died in 1976.
Of all my guitar heroes, Hubert Sumlin is my number one man. I have to admit, when his gig was listed in a local music venue back in about 2003 I didn’t really know who he was. But I turned to my trusty blues encyclopedia, and it turned out I really needed to get myself down to this gig. And truly, it was THE BEST gig I’ve ever been to. Hubert Sumlin is the coolest man I have ever been in the same room as. And the music, oh boy, the music, hit just where the blues always hits me, in the gut, in the heart, everywhere. OK, that’s it with the of the fan-drool.
Sumlin was born in 1931 in Mississippi, and started playing guitar at 8. By his teens he was playing for cash at local functions. He snuck into clubs to see the blues greats before he was old enough. One of those was Howlin Wolf, who drove him home that night, and kept in touch. In 1954, at the age of 23, Sumlin was summoned by Wolf to replace his guitarist. And there he stayed for two decades until Wolf died in 1976.
Sumlin’s playing was spikey, sometimes sparse, “always played the right thing at the right time” , as Jimmy Page once said. He has been named as a key influence of Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Such was Richards’ love of him that he and Mick Jagger paid Sumlin’s funeral expenses in 2011.
For me, he epitomizes blues guitar – earthy, dirty, and from the soul. Things were not the same after seeing Hubert Sumlin play.
Listen to: Hubert Sumlin’s Blues Party (1987)
Then: My Guitar And Me (1994)
So where to begin with exploring the blues? Well I started with B B King, and really that’s not a bad place to start is it?
I’m not sure what it is about The Blues. They certainly don’t make me sad. Something visceral I think. And as I’ve improved as a guitarist, I’ve also come to appreciate that what sounds at a glance like simple music is a multi-layered, multi-faceted mirroring of the human voice and of course the human condition.
The first time I properly noticed the Blues was in a roundabout way, through Gil Scot Heron’s Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues, which I listened to, along with all his other work a lot in the 90s. But I think the roots go back somewhat further to a childhood hearing Billie Holiday, Leadbelly, Nina Simone, Mose Allison and later Jimi Hendrix, as played by parents and grandparents. So all that just sat around in my head for years, waiting for the moment!
So where to begin with exploring the blues? Well I started with B B King, and really that’s not a bad place to start is it? I hung out in record shops, read books and sleeve notes, trawled through catalogues, borrowed cassettes from the library. I’m kind of glad I did it the old fashioned way but how amazing that with a few clicks we can now have it all in an instant.
From Memphis Minnie to Ana Popovic, Son House to Rory Gallagher, different styles, different eras, different continents: here’s a short collection of Blues. I’m pretty sure you’ll want to add some more, so let us know what they are.