Music Wolf man

Without this Hubert Sumlin guy, where would Keith Richards or Jimmy Page be?

Longtime Howlin' Wolf collaborator Hubert Sumlin still plays the low-down, dirty blues. But these days, Sumlin - who's been plagued by serious health problems in recent years - actually feels good when he performs songs about feeling bad.

"I'm ready to go to work, you know," Sumlin says by phone from his Milwaukee home. "I think this summer's going to be a pretty busy period for me now."

Blues guitar master Hubert Sumlin hangs out with Mr. Tambourine Man.

That's a good thing for blues fans and rock 'n' roll fans alike. British invaders and American wannabes have plundered Sumlin's guitar style - chunky, funky chords and slinky pointed leads - for decades. (For reference, pull out Led Zeppelin II. Half of those licks are cribbed directly from Sumlin's work on Wolf's great Chess sides).

But, like the song says, there ain't nothing like the real thing. And people the world over will experience the real thing this summer; coming up on Sumlin's schedule are dates throughout Europe - the Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, Switzerland. He's also doing the summer blues fest circuit, which will bring him to Austin's Zilker Park this week.

Sumlin is in good health and riding high on the strength of a brilliant album. But he wasn't feeling so hot a couple years ago. He lost a lung to cancer and subsequently suffered a heart attack. "The doctors gave me a clean bill of health," he says. "I can breathe, I can walk, and I can play, man, and this is what it's all about."

Talking to Sumlin is like conversing with a living, thinking, talking history book. He's filled with joie de vivre and he loves to tell stories - and he has a lot of them. Like how, when he was 7 years old, his brother had a string of bailing wire nailed to the side of the house, on which he would bang out music.

"I broke his string upside the house," Sumlin says. "And he hit me, man. And I'm a little guy; he was large, big." When Sumlin told his mother about the scrap, it was clear that his brother would be in big trouble.

"We didn't see him for three days," Sumlin recalls. But the two brothers quickly patched things up. "After I got my first guitar, I let him play it. I played it for two weeks before I let him play on it."

The 73-year-old Sumlin was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. His mother used her entire $5 weekly paycheck to buy him his first guitar when he was 7. She worked at a school and had to walk eight miles each way, to and from her job. Sumlin joined Howlin' Wolf's band in 1954 and together they made a series of records that defined urban electric blues - titles such as "Killing Floor," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Going Down Slow," "Built For Comfort," and "300 Pounds of Joy." He also briefly worked with Muddy Waters.

Hubert Sumlin
Pinetop Perkins

Wed, July 6

KGSR's Blues on the Green
Zilker Park Rock Island, Austin
An authorized Sumlin biography, Incurable Blues: The Troubles and Triumph of Blues Legend Hubert Sumlin, was recently released. The book was written by Will Romano from first-person interviews with Sumlin. "I think it turned out OK because everything I said in the book is right," Sumlin says, with a laugh. "I had some hard times, but I wouldn't give nothing for what happened, up to right now."

Sumlin is touring in support of About Them Shoes, his new Artemis release. The album pays tribute to Muddy Waters and features musical guests who provide a testament to his (and Sumlin's) influence: Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, James Cotton, and David Johansen, among others. The record includes seven Waters songs, four that Willie Dixon wrote for Waters, and one Sumlin composition.

Sumlin already plans to release a follow-up to About Them Shoes, filled with Wolf classics. He is also recording an album of new material with Johansen, the New York Dolls frontman who is a frequent collaborator and formidable Wolf imitator when he chooses to be. New York sessions for the record are going well, Sumlin says, but the record's not finished yet. "We have to get these schedules right," Sumlin says. "He's busy with the Dolls and so forth."


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