HUBERT SUMLIN is a national treasure. Not just because he played with Howlin' Wolf for almost 25 years, including on what is to my mind the best blues record ever made, 1962's Howlin' Wolf (a.k.a. the "Rocking Chair album"). Or because he also played with Muddy Waters, most notably on the 1957 single "Got My Mojo Working." Or even because his incredible and unmistakable guitar style influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to Jimmy Page to Keith Richards.
At 77, Sumlin, who will perform many of the most famous songs he recorded with Howlin' Wolf when he plays a tribute to the blues great at Montalvo on Nov. 14, is also one of the last great blues storytellers. To hear most rock musicians tell their life story is, in a word, boring. But the blues? Man, there's a reason some people still think Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Because that's just how cool your story had to be to be even mildly interesting in old-school blues country. Sumlin, who grew up in Arkansas and played with James Cotton (now a fellow legend) as a boy before joining up with Howlin' Wolf in 1954, can do for a story what his guitar can do for a song: elevate it to a level where you're not sure what is real and what is simply impossible. He took time to tell a few about his career to Metro.
On sneaking out to see Howlin' Wolf play at a juke joint when he was 12: "This is what happened, man: somebody had stacked these Coca-Cola crates up, like steps, up to this window where the fan was, right up over Wolf's head. I don't know what happened, but somebody smacked these Coca-Cola crates out from under me. I had both hands on the exhaust fan. And you know what? I believe that Wolf knowed that I was coming. Because this man had both big old huge hands out, and he caught me falling from the fan. Yes, sir. Caught me coming down. If I had hit that floor, I'd a been dead. I know I'd a been hurt very bad. He caught me man, like a baseball, and he didn't even flinch. And he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please bring this young man a chair.' When he got off, he took me back to my house, which was four miles. He told my mother, 'Please, don't whup him. Don't beat him. He's just a young man.' Mama said, 'Yes, sir, Mr. Wolf. Yes, sir.' But when Wolf left, man, Mama got me. Aww yeah. And my daddy, he made whiskey. He was out doing his route on this plantation. He hadn't come home. But when he come home, he got me. So I got two whuppings. But man, I was right back out there the next weekend to see Wolf. That didn't stop me."
On being Wolf's closest collaborator: "They say Wolf was a bad man, everybody say, 'How'd you stay with him that long,' and everything. Wolf did look scary. He did look scary to people—but not me, man. At first, I was afraid of him, too. But that man, he was just like a little kid. He showed me so much. He started to let me put the music to his numbers. Oh boy, you better believe I put my whole heart and soul into every song. I got pretty good at it, so he said, 'Hubert, look, from now on, you gonna help me. Let us do our thing.' That's what we did, man. For 25 years, almost. He was just like a father to me. I got to know him so good, I'd know what he was going to do before he'd do it. That's how close we were."
On working with Muddy Waters: "Muddy offered me more money. He'd been trying to get me in his band. Wolf knowed it. So Wolf told me to go on and play with Muddy a little while, but he said, 'You coming back, I'm just going to loan you to him a few days.' That's what he told me. And that's what I did. I only intended to stay with Muddy three or four days, but I stayed with him 29 days. We played Miami, and we had Ann Cole. Ann Cole stayed with us all over Florida, and then we flew back and recorded 'Mojo.' That was Ann Cole's number. We flew back at 3 in the morning from Tampa, Fla., and it took about 40 minutes to record 'Mojo.' People were just getting up when we were going to bed. Two weeks later, they put the number out. And Ann Cole, she wanted to kill Muddy, 'cause it was her number. I thought she was going to get us, too. They had to settle her down, man. They had to give her a sedative."
On the one time he was fired, for three days: "Wolf fired me one time, I never will forget this. He fired me because I was playing with a pick. And I had been with the man eight years! He fired me in front of about 700 people, in a nightclub. I could have killed Wolf that night. I felt like it. But that's the only time he fired me. Lord have mercy, he fired so many people ... and he hired some of them same people right back! But he put me up to do it. When I came back, I came back with a vengeance, man. My fingers got so sore. I found myself when Wolf fired me. I got my own style. I woke up one morning, and I had what he wanted. It was all in my fingers, I felt everything, I was ready. When I went back to work, those people wanted to see if I did what Wolf had told me to do. And I did. Let me tell you something, when I played the number, I had to cry myself."
On recording the 'rocking chair album': "I love it, I really love it. I remember making 'Shake for Me.' I remember 'Going Down Slow.' I remember '300 Pounds.' All the numbers. I put my heart and soul into it. I even showed the rhythm section what to do. Me and Wolf and Big Willie Dixon, we was in the garage for weeks before we went into the studio to record. Then we got in the studio, here come the rhythm section, here come the horns. Let me tell you something: '300 Pounds'? I'll bet we wasn't in there 30 minutes. That's right. I had already mapped out before we went in the studio what I wanted the horns to do. And Wolf, he cut me loose. He said, 'Just tell 'em what you'll need.'"
On recording 'The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions' with Eric Clapton: "Eric told me I freaked him out with 'Going Down Slow.' He wanted to know how I could make notes sound like that. I told him, 'God, man. I got fired. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't have found myself.'"
HUBERT SUMLIN plays Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8pm as part of 'A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf,' also featuring J.C. Smith and Eddie Shaw, at Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $40; call 408.961.5858.
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