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Remembering Hubert Sumlin: Howlin' Wolf's Alter Ego Axman

"When Howlin' Wolf romped through 'Wang Dang Doodle' or thundered in 'Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,' the snarling guitar that accompanied him belonged to one of the greatest bluesmen to pick up the instrument: Hubert Sumlin," Howard Reich writes for the Tribune.

"The cry of Sumlin's guitar - riffing hard one moment, sighing poetically the next - helped define Wolf's sound, even if Sumlin never attained a fraction of the fame of his celebrated boss.

"In the wake of Sumlin's death Sunday at age 80, of heart failure in Wayne, N.J., Chicago blues musicians tried to put his outsize contributions in focus."


"Hubert Sumlin was born on Nov. 16, 1931, in Greenwood, Miss. Raised in Hughes, Ark., he received his first guitar at 6 and, as a child, aspired to be a jazz guitarist," the New York Times reports.

"He met Howlin' Wolf while still a teenager, when Mr. Sumlin was performing in and around West Helena, Ark., with the blues harmonica player James Cotton, and first recorded with him, under the supervision of Sam Phillips, at Sun Studios in 1953.

"He moved to Chicago the next year at the invitation of Howlin' Wolf, in whose band he was a driving force, apart from a six-month stint with Muddy Waters . . .

"Mr. Sumlin began appearing on Howlin' Wolf's recordings in 1953, first as a rhythm guitarist and then, beginning in 1955, on lead guitar. Mr. Sumlin's eerie guitar counterpart to Howlin' Wolf's unearthly moaning on the 1956 hit 'Smokestack Lightnin'' has lately been featured in a television commercial for Viagra. He also played lead on 'Back Door Man,' 'Spoonful' and 'The Red Rooster,' all written and arranged by the Chicago blues trailblazer Willie Dixon.

"'Back Door Man,' 'Spoonful' and 'The Red Rooster' were later made even more famous in versions released, respectively, by the Doors, Cream and the Rolling Stones. All three originally appeared on Howlin' Wolf's 1962 LP Howlin' Wolf, which the critic Greil Marcus called 'the finest of all Chicago blues albums,' largely because of Mr. Sumlin's contribution."


"He always played the right thing at the right time," Jimmy Page once said, according to Rolling Stone, which just named Sumlin the 43rd best guitarist of all time.


"In honor of the late Hubert Sumlin, Guitar World has searched through its' archives and uncovered this blues gem. Hubert was an incredible blues guitarist whose influences will live on."


With Robert Cray and Jimmy Vaughan at the Crossroads festival in 2010.


With Elvis Costello in October.


At Buddy Guy's.


"Smokestack Lightnin'" with the Allman Brothers last March.


Comments welcome.


Posted on December 6, 2011

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