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Issue 1084

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Hubert Sumlin R.I.P November 16, 1931 â December 4, 2011

Hubert Sumlin R.I.P - November 16, 1931 - December 4, 2011
Hubert Sumlin R.I.P - November 16, 1931 - December 4, 2011 Hubert Sumlin R.I.P - November 16, 1931 - December 4, 2011

Legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin has died of heart failure, aged 80. An influence on many guitar greats including Keith Richards, who paid Sumlinâs medical bills in his later years. Richards and Jagger footing the bill for his funeral expenses.

Howlinâ Wolfâs right hand man and for a short time, sideman for Muddy Waters, Sumlin had a unique âeccentricâ playing style and never used a plectrum, picking the strings with his fingers and hands.
Well, he did use one until his boss, âThe Wolf,â fired him amid one of their regular physical bust ups, and told him to go home and practice without one. When he got his job back, he had found a new sound and tone without a pick, which stayed with him until the end. Also famed for his 1956 âgold top,â Gibson Les Paul guitar.

Sumlin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and, after surgery to remove the diseased lung in 2004, performed with an oxygen tank on stage.

In 1970, when Wolf came over to the UK to record âThe London Howlinâ Wolf Sessionsâ with an all-star Britâ band, including Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman from The Rolling Stones and Beatle Ringo Starr, Leonard Chess the label owner, got a call from Eric Clapton, asking if Hubert was going to be coming to play. It was clear the label had no plans for Hubert to accompany Wolf on the trip, until Clapton said if Hubert Sumlin wasnât going to be on the album, nor was he! The label hurriedly got Hubert a Visa within 24 hours, and he was on the âplane to London.

In June 2002, Hubert Sumlin played a low key, house-full show at a tiny Nottingham blues venue, The Running Horse. The Midlandâs version of a US juke joint. The gig was booked by blues fan and now Chairman of the British Blues Awards, Barry Middleton. He recalls that amazing night.

âIt was completely sold out, and packed. A very intimate gig for such a legend. He played for over two and a half hours without a break. His guitar playing was spot on, as were his vocals.â

âHubert was a gentleman who liked a pint of Guinness. When I was chatting to him before we opened the doors, it was as if he was psychic when he said, âbefore you ask, yes it was 'The Wolf' who knocked my front teeth out when I told him I was going to tour with Muddy Waters.â He said that The Running Horse was the type of venue he loved to play, and it reminded him of playing back home.â

The gig was Friday June 28th 2002 â amazingly the very same year Hubert was told he had lung cancer. The American band was Per Hanson on Drums (Ronnie Earl), Mudcat Ward on Bass (Otis Grand, "Monster" Mike Welch, Sugar Ray Norcia) & David Maxwell on Piano, (Bob Corretore, James Cotton, Mighty Sam McClain, Bob Margolin.) David Maxwell & Mudcat Ward were nominated for WC Handy Awards at the time.

Hubert enthusiastically chatted to staff, the sound guys and âanyone who would listen.â According to Barry, he had had many stories about Howlinâ Wolf & Muddy Waters," which he loved to tell. âHe always had a smile on his face. He was a lovely man, and I am very privileged to have been able to put him on The Runner".

Hubertâs manager and partner, Toni Ann Mamary, told fans the sad news of his death on Hubertâs website, with the headline, âIn Memory.â âOur dear friends⦠It is with a heavy heart that the worse has come to fruition. My little Hubert is living the life of a real angel. Iâm overwhelmed with grief â¦.â

"I just wanted to share with you, Hubert's loving fans, that Mick and Keith have insisted on picking up the full expenses for Hubert's funeral. God bless the Rolling Stones."

"The Stones â they're nice people," Sumlin told the New York Times earlier this year. Musicians such as Richards "can run a ring around me as guitar players", he explained, "but they respect me ⦠They came to Wolf's house because, you know, they heard us doing Little Red Rooster."

Keith and Mick issued statements following Sumlin's death:
"Warm, humorous and always encouraging, he was a gentleman of the first order," wrote Richards. "Miss him, yes, but we have his records. All my condolences to his family. One love, Hubert."

"Hubert was an incisive yet delicate blues player," Jagger wrote. "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."
Sumlin was born near Greenwood, Mississippi, and grew up in Hughes, Arkansas. As a teenager, formed a band with friend and famed harmonica player James Cotton. Inspired to play the blues when he heard a record by Charlie Patton.

Sumlin told Living Blues magazine in 1989, that he was too young to get into a club to see Howlinâ Wolf, so he climbed on to some Coca-Cola boxes to watch him through a window; the boxes collapsed and he fell into the room, landing on Wolf's head on the stage! After the gig, Wolf drove him home and asked his mother not to punish him.
Sumlin played with the legend from 1954 until Wolfâs death in 1976. He left briefly to tour with Wolfâs ârivalâ, Muddy waters which resulted in a fist fight between the 6ft 6in, 300lb Wolf and Huber. The latter telling fans in later years, that Wolf knocked out his two front teeth over the matter. Wolf and Waters also squared up to each other over Muddyâs poaching of Hubert, dramatised in the film âCadillac Records,â which tells the story of the Chess blues roster. Well worth catching on DVD.

âWe were like Father and son, although we had some tremendous fights,â Sumlin said in a 1994 interview. âHe knocked my teeth out, and I knocked his out. None of it mattered; we always got right back together.â

Wolf's biographer Mark Hoffman wrote; "the two combined musically like gasoline and a lit match." "I love Hubert Sumlin," said axe star Jimmy Page recently. "He always played the right thing at the right time."

When Wolf passed away in 1976, it hit Sumlin hard. He quit music, moved from Chicago to Texas, where he left an impression on the Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray. He returned to music eventually, and carved a solo career for himself.

Over the next three decades, he toured the US, Europe and Japan and cut several albums. âAbout Them Shoesâ (2005) focused on his guitar playing and not his voice, star-studded by admirers including Clapton, Richards and Levon Helm.

Sumlin was nominated for a Grammy four times, most recently in 2010, and placed 43rd in a poll to name the top 100 guitarists of all time, by Rolling Stone magazine. Jimi Hendrix, placed at number one, was a huge fan of Sumlinâs playing.

Hubert continued to play at festivals, appearing several times at the annual Eric Clapton-sponsored Crossroads festivals. Check out the You Tube footage of him on stage with Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimme Vaughan, with Sumlin turning in some lovely licks on the Wolf classic, âKilling Floor.â Keith Richards, who had financed Sumlinâs latter-day recording sessions and made guest appearances on âAbout the Shoes,â considered it an honour to contribute to paying Sumlinâs medical bills.

âWhat a pleasure to play with Hubert,â Richards said after their last session together. âAll the top hands are gentlemen.â

⢠Many sources reporting Hubert Sumlin's death, mention âSmokestack Lightningâ in a list of Howlinâ Wolf blues classics that Hubertâs guitar solo featured on. Wrong! When Hubert joined Wolf, he had to earn his place next to the big man, and at first often played second behind Willie Johnson and Jody Williams. It was in fact, Johnson who played the guitar solo on âSmokestack Lightning,â often mistakenly attributed to Sumlin.

Photo credit: Barry Middleton
Words SIMON REDLEY

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