Hubert Sumlin – Who’s gonna share them shoes?
Sumlin returned to Wolf’s band after a few months, but not before playing on such Muddy Waters singles as “Forty Days And Forty Nights” and “Just To Be With You”, with James Cotton on harp and hot lead guitarist Pat Hare, recorded at a Chess session discographers had long assigned to guitarist Jimmy Rogers but since corrected.
The two Chicago bands would keep an eye on each other for years, not least during the long, historic stretch in the 1950s where they were featured on the same bill at Silvio’s — with the likes of Elmore James as the extra act.
Sumlin says of the not always friendly rivalry, “The way I saw it, it was nice, the way them guys had it, because one thought they would outdo the other one, and so did the other. And by the end, Muddy and the Wolf was just like kin folks.”
It wasn’t just the Wolf’s spectacular showmanship — crawling on his belly like a kingsnake, walking the crowd onto the street — that distinguished the two bands. Waters electrified lowdown Delta blues and took it to town, then didn’t change that formula much except maybe for volume. Wolf would mix an even more basic blues — sometimes chugging ’round one chord, with fresh, dynamic, raucous approaches that would move Chicago blues into the ’60s.
After six years of playing rhythm behind such ace Wolf lead guitarists as Willie Johnson, Jody Williams and Freddie Robinson, “Little Hubert” would play a key role in those changes. In 1961, Wolf jolted his shy rhythm guitarist toward stepping out as the band’s lead for that new era — by firing him. Onstage, in front of hundreds of people, Wolf told Sumlin to drop the picks he’d always used to play and go home until he could play right.
Sumlin still describes this famous incident with some passion. “He said that where he was goin’, I hadn’t been. That I’d been playing so fast that he couldn’t get his voice out. ‘Smokestack Lightning’ was one of those numbers.
“So I cried all the way home — went home and prayed. And then I woke up, man, and started playing with my fingers, without the picks. When I tried that, I heard ‘Smokestack Lightning’ just as plain as anybody, and knew I could make it better! And it changed the sound. I could feel the strings — and I could feel soul, my soul, in what I was doing. And I figured that everybody else was going to love this, on account of the music.”
They surely did, history shows. What it hasn’t shown is the very surprising story behind that sudden tactical inspiration.
Hubert Sumlin was first given a guitar by his mother in 1939, when he was 8 years old. It cost eight bucks, a full week’s pay at the Greenwood, Mississippi, funeral home where she worked. Hubert would hear Charlie Patton records and other blues of that era, and, much later, Wolf would teach him more about the Delta styles he’d learned and expanded playing with Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson.
But the teen Sumlin that Wolf would first see in the late ’40s, playing with equally young harp player James Cotton in West Memphis, Arkansas, had soaked up all sorts of music on his own, including the swing music in the air, and another style that accounted for Hubert’s use of those guitar picks (as opposed to slide) in the first place.
“Well, I knew one day the truth on this would come out, but people don’t approach me like this; they don’t ask me about it,” Hubert said, laughing out loud with recognition over where the conversation had taken us.
“Nashville, Tennessee, was my place, man! I had every country record you could name then; I used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. That was my music; I’m not kiddin’ you — just night and day. I had an old battery radio, and every time the battery would go down, I had it charged. You know how? I was drivin’ a tractor!”
The Opry, in the years leading into World War II, featured Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff and his Crazy Tennesseans, and an experimental new act, Bill Monroe and his earliest Blue Grass Boys, then Ernest Tubb and his honky-tonk a little later.
“I’d get a note from this one, a note from that one and maybe a chord or something,” Sumlin remembers. “And man — I was playing this stuff before I was playing the blues. I took it and messed it up, and put it into the blues — in the way I play. I can play some of that music now. The picking was part of the country stuff; that’s exactly it.”