Not a good bunch of weeks to be a legendary musician. I must have been 12 when I saw Hubert Sumlin for the first time, at a long since closed venue called Chicago B.L.U.E.S. I have no idea why they spelled it that way. My dad brought me, I was clearly the youngest person in attendance. These were the smoke filled sketchy days of minimal ID checks….so I mean, I probably could have gotten in on my own had I been able to somehow travel from suburban New Jersey.
Hubert Sumlin is best known as Howlin Wolf’s guitar player. His influence stretches far beyond what any casual rock fan is aware of. Clapton worshipped him. Led Zeppelin covered his tunes (The Lemon Song? That’s his riff) and just listen to Keith, back to back with some Wolf.
On this particular evening early in my musical life, I was about as into blues music as a white suburban kid could be. I wish I knew more about that club, we saw many a classic musician there. James Cotton, Son Seals, Buddy Miles, Johnnie Johnson, possibly several others. What seemed to be the house band at this club, was made up of what is now Conan O’brien’s band. Jimmy Vivino on guitar, Mike Merritt on Bass, James Wormworth (who replaced Max Weinberg) on drums. On keyboards for that show, was the legendary Al Kooper.
I vividly remember Vivino in a bright orange suit, shiny orange tie, chainsmoking, playing a possibly orange strat, sounding phenomenal. This had such a great impression on my fragile young mind. The band was as tight as can be. Not playing arena rock Guns N Roses anthems, but no less powerful.
Sumlin looked just like a cat. Well, a cat with a little mustache, skinny tie, and white hat. Playing a telecaster. The only specific song I remember is “Killing Floor” his signature jam. They might have brought him on stage to that song (16 years tend to cloud exact memories) It just felt like you were seeing the real thing. Here’s the guy who is responsible for this sound, right on stage in front of me.
Years later, Sumlin released an album titled “Wake Up Call” On the CD booklet, there’s a picture of him and Keith Richards on stage together….with the Chicago B.L.U.E.S sign clearly behind them….yeah. I was 12, they played 2 sets a night, we definitely went to the early one. Its probably for the best, my little brain could not have handled that.
At the end of the set, Sumlin came off stage, shook my hand, leaned over to my dad and said “Keep bringing the kids man, its so great to see the young ones” I met sumlin 12 years later during a live radio broadcast, told him this story, and he said (this is an exact quote)
“You were 12??? How old are you now, 2???”
Yeah, I have no idea at all what he meant. The producer of thet show came up to me right after and said “Yep. I saw that happen”
The last show I saw him play was at the Jazz Standard in 2008. His band was no less stellar – Vivino again on guitar, Tony Garnier (of Bob Dylan’s band) on Bass, and David Johansen of the New York Dolls on vocals. Think about it for a sec, Johansen owes quite a lot to Howlin Wolf.
Everyone loved Hubert. Iggy Pop talked extensively about him during a NY Times live interview, Levon Helm played on his last record, he performed with Elvis Costello just a few months ago. He was an unsung musical hero. Well, maybe he was pretty sung (or however that should be phrased) but the majority of music listeners have no idea how far his influence reached.