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Blues icon Hubert Sumlin died of heart failure Sunday in New Jersey at the age of 80. Blogger Scott McDonald talked to Sumlin this past June -- Ed.
While the term legend is overused and hypersubjective these days, it's hard to argue against its necessity when talking about guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
The 79-year-old guitarist not only redefined the sound of blues guitar during his 22-year-tenure playing in icon Howlin' Wolf's band, Sumlin's impact on rock & roll as we know it today is almost immeasurable. With an absolutely ridiculous roster of rock greats citing him as a direct influence -- everybody from Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan –- it almost seems inconsequential that Sumlin also spent a year bending notes for one Mr. Muddy Waters.
But the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame inductee is gracious and unassuming, anything but self-aware, and still enjoys playing today as much as he ever did. As part of the Robert Johnson centennial/Blues at the Crossroads concert series making its way to Anthology on Sunday, he'll lend an irrefutable anchor of blues history to a roster that also includes Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and Cedric Burnside, the grandson of hill country bluesman R.L. Burnside.
However, in speaking with him (and you don’t really talk to Mr. Sumlin as much as experience him), I was every bit a impressed by the story of how he met Howlin' Wolf as I was by his impeccable service to music in general.
"Wolf used to pass by my house every weekend to play at this place that sat on the Mississippi River," Sumlin said recently from New York. "I was about 7 years old. And I know that I sure wasn’t 8. They used to show 10-cent movies on the back of this joint. And I loved movies. It was a honky-tonk place, a long, shotgun house where they sold fish in one part of it, they gambled in one part, and had music in another. So, I told my momma I was gonna go to the movies, but I was set on seeing the Wolf.
"I knew they weren’t gonna let me in or they were gonna throw me out. But I attempted to go in twice anyway. I crawled under a bunch of ladies who were in a big, long line to get in. I got to the door, and a big, old bouncer told me to get out and go back to my momma. But he couldn’t tell me nothing, man. I was gonna see Wolf. I stacked a bunch of Coca-Cola bottle crates up between the tent where they showed the movies and where Wolf was playing. I made me a stairway. I sat up there and looked down at the bandstand and all of those guys playing. It was incredible. But someone came by and kicked down all of those crates, and I went over toward the stage. I believe that the Wolf felt me comin’ because I fell and he caught me. He was a big man, but I don’t know how he knew I was coming. How did he see me? I don’t know. But he caught me, man. I coulda broke my neck. I could have died. But he just looked at all those people and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please bring this young man a chair. I promise you, he ain't gonna move or say a word. I want this young man to see what we’re doing. Maybe one day he’ll play with us.' And sure 'nuff. All I know is that it was meant to be, man. And that's the truth through and through."
In addition to clandestine, life-altering experiences with blues masters, Mr. Sumlin has an uncanny knack for predicting questions that people will ask of him.
"People always want to know," Sumlin said. "I have so many people asking me the same thing -- 'Where the blues come from?' And I love to tell the people about these blues. I say, 'Look, if you ain't got no shoes, and Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and The Wolf would tell you the same thing if they could, if you ain't got no food, no clothes -- you got the blues.' At least that's what we call 'em. Oh, man, and we've sung some songs about it."
In a career in its seventh decade, it's impossible to calculate just how many songs that is. Sumlin isn't counting, but he does know how he feels about all of the prominent artists that have cited him as a contributing factor to the success of their careers.
"It makes me feel nice," Sumlin said. "But it's because I have a style of my own. God gave it to me, but I found it on my own."
He found that style after Howlin' Wolf fired him for still using a pick after eight years of service. It was a move that infuriated Sumlin enough to make him want to do physical harm to his employer. But, as Sumlin said, "Wolf was just too big of a man." Sumlin also conceded that his bandleader may have had a point.
Sumlin started using just his fingers to play, and when he had found his groove, he went back to his boss and was rehired. It was something of a musical epiphany and was how Sumlin’s signature style was born.
It's that style that keeps him performing today.
"I'm enjoying it better than ever, man," Sumlin said. "I'm so glad that people recognize and believe in me. I'm doing God's work, man. I'm doing the peoples' work. I'm doing the world’s work. I've got everything I need, and I ain't got a quarter. And I mean that."
Sumlin will keep playing until he can no longer hold the guitar. But he is certain that music will live on forever.
"Music is music," he said. "Just look at that rock & roll. Look at jazz. If you got the feelin' and you got the soul, you gonna feel it. And blues sure got some soul, brother. But this music will be around forever, man. For. Ever. It’s gonna be here when you leave, and it’ll be here when you come back; especially the blues. But all this music is here to stay."