Hubert Sumlin - Pickin' With The Wolf

Hubert Sumlin has invented a sack full of classic blues licks: the sliding, bending, chiming riffs to Smokestack Lightnin and Wang Dang Doodle, the clucking stair-step that drives Killing Floor, the call-and-response tag of Spoonful.

Although it's the literal blues giant Howlin Wolf's name -- as well as torchbearers like Cream and Hendrix -- that is associated with these tunes, from 1954 to Wolf's death in 1976 Sumlin was his right-hand man and the lead instrument on many of Wolf's Chess records. Since then Sumlin's playing style (full of slippery string sliding, half- and full-step bends, hopping finger picking) has been emulated by many blues guitarists including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ronnie Earl. But, as Sumlin's quick to say, it's never been truly copied.

Sumlin has spent much of his years since Wolf's death battling obscurity. It wasn't until 1987 that he released his first US solo disc, Hubert Sumlins Blues Party (Black Top), and began to tour and record regularly. Now, at age 68, he's got 10 albums in print and is working on one that's likely to make him as famous as he deserves to be -- with a little help from his friends. The as-yet-untitled effort features Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, as well as the Band's Levon Helm and hard-core bluesmen like pianist David Maxwell and Muddy Waters Band guitarist Bob Margolin. The CD should be out later this year.

Meanwhile, Sumlin bides time in his Milwaukee home or on the road, where his recent concerts have often taken on a fury he hasn't displayed since his days with Wolf. I just feel like goin' for it again, he explains. And I gotta eat, you know?

He's also gotta speak his mind. What's your assessment of the current crop of blues players?

Hubert Sumlin: Comin up with Wolf and Muddy, I've seen a lot. I had my first guitar when I was eight. My mother bought it. We lived on a plantation where there was 5,000 people. My dad was a whiskey-maker, but I say Amen to that. That's what was keepin shoes on our feet -- not the 25-cents a day he made farming. All the musicians comin up since the Beatles, they got to learn how to do music right. They got their rock 'n' roll, but you got to put feelin in any music to play it right. There's a generation of guitar players who got to get that together. What about Eric Clapton and Keith Richards?

Sumlin: Eric seem to understand more about the blues than anybody I ever seen, man. And Keith. They got soul in what they're doing. All I'm trying to do is keep it with what I know and what I've been through in my life. I lived it. So I know it. Howlin Wolf probably felt he needed to teach you about blues.

Sumlin: Together, we had the magic. I had the guitar and my soul; he had the voice. He showed me things that I really took to heart. You got to know how to play slow and you got to know how to play by yourself, covering the beat and the leads. See, I played with a pick, like Buddy Guy. I was too fuckin fast. Wolf said, "Number one, you got to put that fuckin pick down and start playing with your fingers." And he was right. I ain't picked up another pick since. I'm old. I can't change my tone, can't change my way of living. But people want to push me all the way to the top now. I've been nominated for a Grammy twice. And I believe this time I'm gonna win, cause I got friends like Keith and Eric. How did you hook up with Wolf?

Sumlin: When I was a boy, we moved from Greenwood, Mississippi, to Arkansas. They caught my daddy makin whiskey, so we moved. (Laughs) I was in West Memphis with [harmonica ace] James Cotton. Him and me grew up together. Well, Cotton told Wolf about me, and Wolf sent for me. Cotton told me, "Hey man, go ahead on with Wolf. You'll make more money with Wolf than you can with me. Just punch my story so maybe I can join you guys down the line." Sure enough he did. He got with Muddy. Is it true that you used to have such bad stage fright when you first started playing with Wolf that you'd turn your back on the audience?

Sumlin: Shit, I still turn my ass to people. Yes, I am very nervous. I can't help it, man. And when the shit ain't right you better believe I'm gonna turn my ass. See, I can't afford to travel with my own band, so unless you got the right guys who can play the blues right I'm embarrassed. But I gotta do what I gotta do. I gotta eat. You're one of the few musicians who belonged to both Howlin Wolf's and Muddy Waters' bands. Is it true that part of their famous rivalry included who got to have you in their group?

Sumlin: Sure. That's right. But the truth is they was the best of friends. I started playin with Wolf, but he'd fire me and I'd go with Muddy. Then Wolf would offer me more money to come back. Then he'd fire my ass again. And I go with Muddy. They hated one another for five years. They fell out over songs and who's bragging on who's better and some other mess. They finally come back together in an office at Chess Records one day. The band was next door, but I found a little peephole, and I said to [piano great Otis] Spann, Look at them two son-of-a-guns. Man, they's hugged up and kissin one another. Who was a tougher boss?

Sumlin: Both of them was tough. Not only as a man. If you didn't play the shit right, you was fired -- instantly. Your fights with Wolf are legendary.

Sumlin: Worse one was in Arkansas. I missed a job because I got hold of this little old love who lived in Little Rock. Now, Wolf had two guitar players, but he didn't care. Wolfs pissed off, so he knocks me down in this embankment. Hit me hard. I didn't know nothin about my teeth being gone until I come back up out of those rocks. When I got to the top he said, How do you feel? I said, I feel all right. [imitates Wolfs growl] All right? No, I dont think you do. BOOM! Back down there I go. Picked me up one of them white rocks and put it in my pocket. I get back to the top, he opens the car door. Now you feel all right? Yes sir. [I'm] Bleeding like I don't know what. No teeth. I was sittin' in that station wagon with a rock in my back pocket. I'm thinkin, I could kill him if I want. We goes up to West Memphis to his hotel, so I called a cab when I get there and everybody think I'm gonna be there the next day because we had three more days in Memphis and one in Arkansas. But I goes to the train station in Memphis and I get me a ticket back to Chicago. When I get on the train, I sees a bass. I said to myself, that's my bass players. I said, What the fuck are you doin on the train? And he said. Hey man if you leavin', I'm leavin'. So Wolf called both of us back. Two signatures of your style are the way you slide on the strings, like in Killing Floor, and the way you use cool little bends, like the Smokestack Lightning riff. How did you develop those?

Sumlin: It's slick shit! This is something I don't want to learn nobody about. Ronnie Earl and them, they think they can figure it out and play like I do, but they can't. They close. But only I can do it And I ain't about to show your ass nothin. That's what Im here to play! (laughs). Wolf made my ass come up with that shit! Hell, I had to play to God! He always used to put me down: You ain't doing this! You ain't got that right! I said, Fuck it, who you think you are? Some fuckin state trooper? For Smokestack Lightnin, Wolf wrote it, and then he made me come up with that part. I'm the one who come up with the music for Killing Floor, Going Down Slow all of this, man. You know what I can say? Get your own shit together. Listen to music you like but say, I'm gonna play it my way. That's what I did. You get your own shit, man, -- You ain't got to be worried about anyone.

Just can't get enough? Check out...