When Hubert was about 10, he sneaked out to the local juke joint and stood on a pile of Coca Cola crates to see Howlin’ Wolf. Drawn in by the music, he fell through the window and landed right on the stage. The club owner tried to throw out the underage boy, but Wolf insisted that Hubert stay and sit on the stage while he played. He later took Hubert home to his Mama and asked that he not be punished.
A few years later, Hubert and James Cotton started a band together. Howlin’ Wolf heard about them in West Memphis and soon brought Hubert to Chicago. Along with Wolf’s other great guitar players in the ‘50s, Willie Johnson and Jody Williams, Hubert contributed to some of the deepest, darkest, most primitive and powerful Blues the world has ever known. Hubert was developing his own guitar style, but still had a way to go. Hubert tells of how Wolf once told him to step down from the bandstand, complaining that Hubert was playing over his voice. Wolf suggested that Hubert lose the guitar picks, letting Hubert play softer but with more expression and tone. Embarrassed and hurt, Hubert went home to woodshed. He was talented enough to turn the setback into an opportunity for greatness and strong enough to return. Hubert developed a guitar style based on the human touch of flesh on steel, perfectly framing and answering Wolf’s roars and moans, and soloing with pain and humor, trouble and transcendence.
It is on Howlin’ Wolf’s early- to mid-‘60s recordings for Chess Records that Hubert Sumlin’s guitar playing crossed the line between impressive and legendary. Listen to, “Built For Comfort,” “Shake For Me,” “300 Pounds of Joy,” “Louise,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Killing Floor,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” How did this grinning genius come up with these original, emotional, Hell-to-Heaven guitar parts? Fortunately, we don’t need to know to enjoy them.