The passing of blues guitar great Hubert Sumlin has brought forward many tributes. One thing that comes across is that he was kind, sweet, and a unique player, to which I can attest. When the blues came first my way via a Boston visit by Sunnyland Slim and Paul DeMark, I soon met Hubert. When I was a kid of 16 I had a 45 of Killing Floor/Going Down Slow so I knew his playing – if not his name - from early on. Later, in the 1980s he was, together with Sunnyland Slim, Louisiana Red and Sam Burckhardt (see picture above of him and Hubert) a house guest, especially quiet and thoughtful of others.
When Slim and Paul arrived in Boston 1979 the talk soon turned to Hubert. It was Paul who told me he was Howlin Wolf's guitar player and that said a lot. The first day Sunnyland and Paul DeMark were in town the first thing they wanted to do was hook up with Hubert Sumlin. How did we find people in those days? It's hard now to imagine. There was a grapevine, not a cellular phone network. They knew the music bookers, had their numbers, they knew Hubert might be around, touring with the WolfPack band that formed after Wolf's death. Call the main desk at the Hotel Bradford. "I'm in room 522."
Muscians spend late hours. This was morning. Others were sleeping Hubert was up. I can picture this in detail because I have a picture a friend took of Hubert at the Bradford. This was a very generic hotel room. Two beds. A small table and one lamp in between. Ash tray and cigarettes there. On one bed is an old black telephone. He's playing a blonde Gibson. Looking at its neck, chording carefully. Bare feet walked many a mile. The artist in waiting modus.
Before we met, Paul described Hubert - how he trained the young musician on how to shake his hands. That is: Softly and limply. He did not like people crunching his hands when he got off the bandstand. We found out James Cotton was in town and at the Bradford too. Hubert, Paul, and I went to his room Cotton hosted us ... but didn't get out of bed! Cotton told Hubert that another bluesman had died [Gene Pierson, I think] and he had to sit down, it just hit Hubert like a weight, he was so brung down. I didnt realize til I read the obits that Hubert actually started with Cotton.
[Actually, reviewing some notes...it wasn't Cotton who disclosed Pierson's death...this happened in hotel lobby, but it was Gene "Your Funeral or My Trial" Pierson who was in fact the topic. Maybe the message came via a bass player called "Something Shorty".]
When Hubert stayed with us it was by no means all fun and roses. On stage he could be a temperamental artist. Meanwhile, Sunnyland, like Wolf, could be an imposing character. The fellows (less Louisiana Red, who had just been grabbing a ride, and who moved on ahead of the others) played Sandy's in Beverly. The opening act was to double as the rhythm back up section but the first sets did not go well. Hubert went into a sort of cocoon – for a while he fingered rather than played – air guitar style. I saw him do this on a few occasions. This called up a fury in Slim. He hurt Hubert's feelings. This is described in the book I wrote together with Slim, "Sunnyland Blues."
hubert tells me
he is just like slim
youre gonna play
hubert looked at me once through the dimmest
dark bar experience
slim had just berated him on stage
for playing those invisible jazz notes that only
hubert is known for,
and hubert said
the man will not play a dead note
he wakes up at night
and says i'm gonna die
Well he did die. But, of course, he was saying ''I aint gonna die just now''- which was true. He wasnt gonna carry Slim's weight. He had a real jazz feel – really was of another generation than Slim or Wolf, though, like few others, he ably spanned the old and new blues.
The engagements later got on track. And subsequently, at the Tam in Brookline, Slim, Hubert, Sam and a much more simpatico Boston ensemble put on one of the greatest shows ever. Slim jumped off the piano bcnch and on the show floor with the audience at one point doing a Howlin Wolf impersonation to How Many More Years, and Hubert and his guitar were incredible. This I'll never forget.
I cant really describe Hubert Sumlin's sound. He played fingers-only. Played a Les Paul. On Killing Floor, on Going Down Slow, Spoonful, Sitting on Top of the World, Shake for Me, Wang Dang Doodle, Little Red Rooster, Smokestack Lightning, You'll Be Mine, Little Baby, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man. On so many numbers, he accompanied the Howlin Wolf. He could slash out a sound, pierce the ether, spin percussive rhythmic inventions, deftly insert complex and unique chords, and run very quickly a dynamic gamut. Never to, God forbid, overwhelm the vocalist.
The guitar talked and sang. It told a story. The wonder was offstage he could be so calm. Running errands for the household. Just waiting for the moment of the gig. It is nice to see all the tributes, and to have the feeling that he is finding peace in the hereafter.