In Memory Of Hubert Sumlin, Dead At Age 80
When Howlin’ Wolf romped through “Wang Dang Doodle” or thundered in “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” the snarling guitar that accompanied him belonged to one of the greatest bluesmen to pick up the instrument: Hubert Sumlin.
The cry of Sumlin’s guitar — riffing hard one moment, sighing poetically the next — helped define Wolf’s sound, even if Sumlin never attained a fraction of the fame of his celebrated boss. Sumlin died Sunday of heart failure in New Jersey. He was 80.
A mainstay of the Chicago blues scene, Sumlin was nominated for four Grammy awards and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2008.
Hubert Sumlin was born in Mississippi, raised in Arkansas and moved to Chicago to play with Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he had a loyal but often contentious relationship. In 1956 Sumlin was hired away for a brief stint with Wolf’s biggest rival, Muddy Waters. After Wolf’s death in 1976, Sumlin continued to perform with the rest of Wolf’s band under the name the Wolf Gang. In addition to his work as a sideman, he released more than a dozen albums under his own name, most recently About Them Shoes (2004).
In recent years, Sumlin — who had left Chicago and lost his wife, Willie B. “Bea” Reed Sumlin, in 1999 — was still an attraction on Chicago stages. He appeared alongside Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan in 2007 at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview; performed at a “Blues at the Crossroads” concert in February at Symphony Center; and headlined frequently at the Chicago Blues Festival but canceled his participation in a Robert Johnson centennial tribute at this summer’s fest (as did the since-deceased nonagenarian David “Honeyboy” Edwards), due to illness.
Hubert Sumlin (left), Honeyboy Edwards (right) and Steven Johnson (center) at the Berklee Performance Center in February 2011.