The Boy in the Window 

Hubert Sumlin was 11 when he fell in Howlin' Wolf's lap. Today he's the blues legend's living legacy.

Hubert Sumlin was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist from 1955 until Wolf's death in 1976. It was one of the most fruitful partnerships in music history. Wolf's deep growl of a voice and Sumlin's innovative guitar work made the Howlin' Wolf band one of the most popular in Chicago in the 1950s and one of the most influential for future blues artists, especially those living in Great Britain.

And 22 years later, Sumlin says he still doesn't mind talking about his former employer.

"Not at all," Sumlin says. "I'll talk about him all you want. He was my father."

Not really, but he might as well have been, as the two became that close. When Sumlin was eight years old, his mother spent a week's salary on a guitar for Hubert. It was to become, obviously, money well spent. Three years after buying it, however, Mom must have wondered if she created a monster. Hubert, eleven at the time, was caught crashing a juke joint near his home in Hughes, Arkansas, hoping to see Howlin' Wolf.

"You know how young boys all want to get close to their idols,'' Sumlin says. "I stacked Coca-Cola cases against the wall and I looked in the window. Someone pulled the cases out from under, then I went crashing through the window."

In the middle of a song, no less. Wolf (born Chester Burnett) said, "Let him stay. Bring him a chair." Sumlin sat there, drinking water and listening to the band, which also included Junior Parker and Pat Hare.

"When Wolf took me home, he told my mother not to punish me and he told her, 'I might need him some day.'"

That day arrived twelve years later. Sumlin was gigging around Memphis as a teenager with harmonica player James Cotton. He filled in once when Hare failed to show up one night. Cotton said he could not believe it was not Hare handling guitar for the band. A few years later, Sumlin moved to Chicago to join Wolf. Then came the string of Howlin' Wolf hits like "Spoonful," "Back Door Man," "Shake for Me," "300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy," "Little Red Rooster," and "Sittin' on Top of the World."

Sumlin will be at Wilbert's Saturday, backed by the Sean Chambers Band from Tampa, Florida. He will be supporting two recent album releases--his own Wake Up Call on Blues Planet Records and a collaboration with keyboardist Pinetop Perkins on Cleveland-based Telarc.

Sumlin's playing incorporates both the acoustic styles of the Delta and the electrified Chicago blues. He was never frenetic like Buddy Guy or Elmore James. The forcefulness was in Wolf's voice.

"He talked just like he sang," Sumlin says. "That's why people was scared of him. They looked at how huge he was"--Wolf was six-foot-six, weighed more than 300 pounds, and had an enormous head--"and hear him talk, and they would be afraid. Really, he was a wonderful man. He gave all us young men--me and Cotton and Junior Parker--our starts."

The list of Sumlin's admirers reads like a Who's Who of guitarists from the rock and roll era: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, the late Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Rory Gallagher. Legend has it Clapton refused to participate in the recording of The London Sessions unless Sumlin was there as well.

"That's true," Sumlin says. "The label [Chess] didn't want me. All they wanted was the English musicians--the Rolling Stones, and those people. Eric told them I had to be there. He was a swell guy, and still is as far as I know."

Sumlin did play with other blues legends, including Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Albert King. But he never failed to be with Wolf for a recording date. Sumlin took the death of his boss hard and for a few years retired from recording and performing. That hiatus didn't last long.

"I knew it wouldn't," he says. "When you're doing something you love, you're not going to leave it. You say things, but you don't mean them. You never really stop, even if you only do it at home, you keep doing it. That's just the way it is."

Sumlin began a solo career and started making friends with all the young blues prodigies so influenced by Howlin' Wolf. He cut albums like Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party, with talented singer Mighty Sam McLain. The Vaughan brothers, Stevie Ray and Jimmie, became pals with him. Sumlin still wears the guitar strap Stevie Ray gave him back in 1983.

It's an interesting coincidence that Sumlin will be accompanied by Sean Chambers and his band, bassist Scott Smalley, and drummer Rich Russo. Chambers was an unenthusiastic college student ten years ago, who was faced with the choice of studying to pull up his grades or attending a Stevie Ray Vaughan/Jeff Beck show. The concert won, and Chambers decided music was his life's calling. His guitar work has been compared to Freddie King and Johnny Winter. He lists them plus another Texan, Albert Collins, and rocker Robin Trower, as his main influences.

Chambers's band released its first album in October, about the time Sumlin's Wake Up Call hit the racks. On Wake Up Call Sumlin employs the band from Late Night with Conan O'Brien, featuring Jimmy Vivino (rhythm guitar), Mike Merritt (bass), Scott Healy (piano, organ), and Jerry Vivino (saxophone).

"I'm real happy about this album," Sumlin says. "I was comfortable making it, because everyone let me have my way. Nobody ever let me have my way before except Wolf, and it took him years before he let me have it."

As long as Sumlin is still picking, the Wolf will survive.

Hubert Sumlin. 10 p.m., Saturday, December 12, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 W. 9th St., $10 ADV, $12 DOS, 216-771-2583, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

More by Steve Byrne


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