Quiet and unassuming off the bandstand, Hubert Sumlin developed an incendiary guitar style that provided the perfect foil for the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. The Wolf was Sumlin’s imposing mentor for more than two decades, and it proved a mutually beneficial relationship. Sumlin’s twisting, darting, unpredictable guitar lines energized the Wolf’s 1960s Chess sides, including such classics as “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Howlin’ for My Darlin’”, “The Red Rooster”, “Backdoor Man” “Shake for M”, “Killing Floor”, “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
The youngest of thirteen children, Sumlin was born in 1931 in Greenwood, Mississippi, and grew up near West Memphis, Arkansas. When he was eight years old, Hubert’s mother invested an entire week’s pay - $5 - on Hubert’s first guitar. In his teens, Sumlin briefly hooked up with another young blues musician with a promising future, harmonica ace James Cotton. But he soon got the offer to join Howlin’ Wolf’s band in Chicago in 1954. Then began what was to become one the longest and most legendary partnerships in the blues world. Although theirs was a sometimes tempestuous relationship, Sumlin remained loyal to the Wolf until the big man’s death in 1976. In the interim, Wolf and Sumlin changed the sound of American music and helped create rock and roll.
Sumlin’s pioneering electric blues guitar influenced such modern players as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Bob Weir, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and many others. Clapton proved his respect by refusing to do the Chess Records London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions unless Sumlin was present. Sumlin’s recordings with Wolf inspired cover versions by Cream, the Doors, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.
Sumlin’s recent recording, About Them Shoes (2003) on Rykodisc featured Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Paul Oscher and Levon Helm.