The young wolf

By Sergio Ariza

The story of Hubert Sumlin is so linked to that of Howlin' Wolf that when Wolf died, in the papers of his funeral Sumlin appeared listed as his son. It is impossible to tell the story of Sumlin without the tremendous protective shade that Wolf gave him, but it is also not possible to deny the tremendous impact that Sumlin’s guitar had on Wolf’s music, making Sumlin one of the heroes of many of the most important guitarists in history.  People who respond to the name of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mike Bloomfield or Jimmy Page have sung the praises of this simple man who knew how to express himself in a thousand wonderous ways through the strings of a guitar, with an aggressive, unpredictable style and some 'bends' that were considered practically impossible at the time.      


Hubert Charles Sumlin
came to the world on November 16, 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi. When he was very small his family moved to Arkansas, where he grew up admiring his older brother who played a kind of homemade guitar with a single string. However when his brother added another three the little Hubert decided to imitate him and began to play but unluckily he broke one of them. His brother hit him with a brick and fled when he saw him lying on the ground. When the younger brother told his mother she decided to teach the older brother lesson, she whupped him and then decided to take Hubert to a store and bought him an eight-dollar guitar. He was eight years old and fate had put the future in his hands. It finished sealed when he heard an old record by Charley Patton and decided that the music of his mother's church was not for him. His was the blues, his idols, Howlin 'Wolf and Muddy Waters. One day he escaped from home to see Wolf’s act and that giant man made an impression that no one else would cause for the rest of his life. During the performance Wolf noticed the 14-year-old adolescent, arranged a seat for him near the stage, told him not to drink and after the performance decided to take him home himself. His mother was waiting for her son with a belt on her hand, but Wolf came forward and said "Don’t whup him, please, because I may even need him one day".

There was some prophecy in those words, so Sumlin decided to leave home, soon after, to take to the road with his guitar as his only luggage. His destination was West Memphis, the city in which Wolf acted as king. The prophecy would be fulfilled and Sumlin would become Wolf's right hand until his death, but before that he met another fundamental man in his career, a young harmonicist who responded to the name of James Cotton. Together they would form a band that would begin to make a name for themselves in the city. It would be, once again, Howlin' Wolf who would give them their best chance, first by opening for their band and then giving them 15 minutes of their half-hour radio show. But Cotton and Sumlin were getting so good that Wolf decided to remove them from their show by telling them "maybe I'll hire you for my band someday." That day was not far away, Wolf had as guitarist the great Willie Johnson with whom he had recorded Moanin 'At Midnight and How Many More Years on the future Sun Records. But Johnson was drunk most of the time, so when one day he did not show up Wolf called Sumlin up on stage. At that time he was already negotiating his contract with Chess Records.

When he finally left for the city of the wind he did not forget the guitarist, approached Cotton and asked him if he would let Hubert leave, Cotton did not hesitate and recommended his friend accept, "you are going to earn a lot more money with Wolf, I hope he sends you back to take me too! " So shortly Sumlin headed north to join Wolf's new band. At the station the pianist Otis Spann was waiting for him and his first stop was the house of Muddy Waters, where the two kings of Chicago were playing cards. Sumlin thought he had reached paradise. 
In a short time recordings began with songs like Evil Is Going On and Forty Four of 1954 in which the Kay 'Thin Twin' that Wolf had bought for Sumlin and Jody Williams shone with the howl of the singer. In 1955 James Cotton arrived in Chicago, but it was not at the request of Wolf but of Muddy Waters who brought him to replace Little Walter and put him in charge of his band. The rivalry between Muddy and Wolf reached legendary levels and brought with it the golden age of electric blues, with Chicago as an absolute Mecca.      


In January of 1956 Howlin Wolf decided to record a song he had been singing since the 1930s, Smokestack Lightning, but now he was carrying with him a new electric arrangement that featured an incredible riff by Sumlin that would be copied over and over again. The song was a tremendous success and turned Sumlin, who by then had the mythical Les Paul Goldtop that Wolf gave him, into the right hand of his mentor. But the most important rivalry of the blues got in his way. An emissary of Muddy Waters appeared in the Zanzibar, the joint where they used to play, and offered Sumlin three times more than what he earned with Wolf. Sumlin accepted and Wolf felt betrayed. With Waters he would record things like Forty Days and Forty Nights and Don’t Go No Further, but the change involved several other things, such as the fact that he now shared the role with Waters guitarists, people like Pat Hare and Jimmy Rogers - and being the new one also had its consequences. Muddy took them on tour to the South and gave 40 concerts in 40 nights, with Sumlin as the only driver. To make matters worse, Wolf was a responsible boss with an impeccable code of conduct, while Muddy was the leader of a band of drunks and quarrelsomes who were nicknamed the Muddy Waters Drunken Ass Band. Tired and shattered after the tour, Sumlin decided to call Wolf to ask him to return. Without thinking twice Wolf came calling and saying "where is he?" In the club where Waters played, Muddy was drunk playing cards but when he saw the giant stare at him, Wolf took Sumlin and without looking away he said "I came to pick up my son". They would not separate until Wolf's death in 1976.


Sumlin would reward him with the best moments of his career, whether it was with his Les Paul equipped with P-90s, a Stratocaster, several Gretsch's, and even a Rickenbacker 360 in the mid-70s. His aggressive style served as inspiration for the greats' guitar heroes' from rock, from the cream of the British to Hendrix. His style can be appreciated in essential monuments of the history of the blues like Killing Floor, The Natchez Burning, Spoonful, Wang-Dang Doodle, Back Door Man, I Ain’t Superstitious or on the spectacular solo of Shake For Me. Unlike most blues musicians, when rock and roll appeared, Howlin Wolf continued to maintain his popularity and his most outstanding albums appeared, such as Howlin 'Wolf (also called The Rockin' Chair) in 1962 and More Real Folk Blues of 1965. In both, in addition to its characteristic howl, the most distinctive element is Sumlin's guitar. Was this one of the reasons why the first of these albums was chosen by Mojo as the third most important record in the history of the guitar after Are You Experienced? of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and My Generation of the Who...

In 1964, taking advantage of his first European tour, Sumlin recorded his first solo songs. By then he had collaborated with the main artists of Chess, such as Chuck Berry, with whom he recorded School Day, Jimmy Reed or Sunnyland Slim. His fame among British guitarists was huge with Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page naming him as one of their biggest influences. So much so that when in 1970 Chess organized some sessions in London for Howlin 'Wolf to record with some of the biggest rock stars of the time, Clapton had to call the company to warn them that he would not go if they did not pay Sumlin’s ticket too. 


But on January 10, 1976, Howlin 'Wolf's heart stopped beating, leaving the blues orphan as well as the person he considered his son, Hubert Sumlin. However he continued recording and hobnobbing with the most important guitarists in the world, people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa and Keith Richards. It was precisely the Stone, together with Mick Jagger, who was in charge of paying the bills when Sumlin's health worsened in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. When he finally died, on December 10, 2011, at the age of 80, it was Jagger and Richards who took over the funeral expenses. Of course, it was they who felt indebted to the lead guitarist of one of their greatest influences, Howlin 'Wolf.

Wolf and Sumlin’s relationship can be summarized with a clarifying anecdote. After one concert Sumlin started to talk to a beautiful girl who was flirting, but while this happened Wolf had to carry and remove all his equipment. When finally Sumlin returned, Wolf began to curse and insult him in front of the rest of the band. Sumlin, embarrassed, moved towards Wolf and punched him, but the giant of nearly two meters and weighing 136 kilos slowly turned and gave him a blow that sent poor Sumlin through the floor with several teeth less. Sumlin left humiliated for home. The next morning his wife woke him up and told him that Wolf had spent the night in his car in front of the house. Sumlin went outside and a repentant Wolf apologized and gave him enough money to fix his mouth. Since the night Howlin’ Wolf returned Sumlin to his mother in the late 1940s, Wolf was like a father to Hubert Sumlin, and Sumlin thanked him with some of the best moments that the blues guitar has seen and heard. The beneficiaries of that relationship are all of us.