Hubert Sumlin, one of the last great Chicago blues artists passed away last Sunday, 4th December, aged 80. I feel honoured to have shared a birthday with him – November 16. He had come to prominence as guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago in the 1950s, with a distinctive bare fingers technique, playing edgy and distinctive riffs. He worked as Wolf’s guitarist for 23 years. In later life, as a solo artist he was recognised by numerous Grammy nominations and a 2008 Blues Foundation award. Bands such as the Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all influenced by Sumlin’s playing. He became something of a living legend and prominent guitarists wanted to play with him or have him guest on recordings – the excellent 2004 recording, About Them Shoes, featured Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Levon Helm. In its most recent edition, Rolling Stone magazine listed Sumlin as one of the 100 greatest guitar players. Elvis Costello said of him, “Hubert’s a great man, and again, you know, I don’t play the guitar very good, but when I’m playing this kind of music, I always have him in my mind. I wish I could play like Hubert”. The esteem in which he was held is witnessed by the fact that Stones Richards and Jagger contributed to his medical bills and funeral expenses. Mick Jagger said, “Hubert was an incisive yet delicate blues player. He had a really distinctive and original tone and was a wonderful foil for Howlin’ Wolf’s growling vocal style. He was an inspiration to us all.”
Hubert Sumlin was said to be quiet and unassuming off stage. Keith Richards
called him a “gentleman” and Chicago blues guitarist, Dave Specter, said, “Hubert was just the sweetest guy”. That combination of being successful and recognised as highly influential in one’s field and at the same time wearing all that lightly is rare and to be appreciated. The word “inspiration” has been used to describe Hubert by many people – which of us could wish for more to be said about us at the end of our lives?
Hubert Sumlin plays “Sittin’ On Top of the World” with Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Hubert Sumlin reminisces about Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters