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Hubert Sumlin

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Hubert Sumlin
  • Hubert Sumlin
Some people would do anything to see Howlin' Wolf perform. In 1942, Hubert Sumlin was 10. He snuck up to a joint where Wolf was playing and stood on a crate to peer through the window. The crate collapsed, sending Sumlin through the window and nearly into Wolf's lap. Impressed with the boy's nerve, Wolf let him stay.

"When he taken me home that night after the concert, he told my mother, 'Please don't whup him, because I may need him,'" the guitarist chuckles. "And sure 'nuff, I ended up with him."

Hubert Sumlin not only became Wolf's guitarist but also the architect of Wolf's sound. "I knowed what he needed," Sumlin says. "I had the music and he had the voice."

Sumlin is a soft-spoken man whose friendly, unassuming manner belies his fiery performances as Wolf's sideman. He's a great raconteur, opening up to an interviewer in a phone call from a tour stop like they were lifelong friends, telling tales of glory days with Wolf. He does the voices of all the characters in his stories, dropping down into the lower register to approximate Wolf's guttural growl.

After Wolf took him home, Sumlin practiced on a string of baling wire nailed to the house. By his early 20s, he was good enough to play with James Cotton on Wolf's radio show in West Memphis, Ark. When Wolf left for Chicago in 1954, he made Sumlin a promise.

"He said, 'Hubert, I'm gonna get you,'" says Sumlin; then switching his voice from Wolf to Cotton: "Cotton said, 'Man, you go on with Wolf, you'll make more money wid him than you will wid me.'"

Sumlin had it made. "Wolf let me put the music to everything," Sumlin says. Then one day, Wolf told his guitarist he was playing too loud, drowning him out.

"Oh Lawd, have mercy, he fired me, man," Sumlin says, the pain apparent in his voice after all these years. "Said, 'Man, go home and put that pick down.'"

Humiliated but determined to regain his job, Sumlin went home and practiced playing without his pick. "I was playing like everybody in the first place. I found my own self, found my own tune, my own sound."

Wolf took the pick-less guitarist back, and Sumlin went on to record most of Wolf's best known works with him, like "Built for Comfort."

"I got a chance to know what Wolf was doin', man, before he did it," Sumlin says. "In other words, we were communing together."

Despite the communion, Sumlin was led astray when Muddy Waters offered him more money to join his band in 1956. On one tour, Sumlin was forced to drive the band nonstop from Miami to Chicago. Everybody, including Waters, was too drunk to perform, let alone drive. When they arrived, Sumlin called Wolf for help.

"Wolf came in and so he went straight to Muddy. Muddy was drunk. But when Wolf said, 'Hey man,' he woke up and got sober as a judge," Sumlin chuckles. "He knowed nobody else had a voice like that. Muddy says, 'What's the matter?' Wolf say, 'Man, you know what's wrong. I come to get my son.'"

Sumlin decided it was time for a reunion with Wolf. He stayed with Wolf until his death in 1976. Now widely recognized as one of the most innovative guitarists in blues, at 74, Sumlin is still as impressive as ever.

"You better tell my friends they better get ready," Sumlin says of his upcoming appearance, "'cause they gonna be in for it."

Hubert Sumlin plays Artsplosure in downtown Raleigh on Saturday, May 20 from 6-7:15 p.m., backed by the Nighthawks. See www.artsplosure.org for details.

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