Hubert Sumlin was starting out. Howlin’ Wolf was starting over. Together, they changed the blues forever.
Hubert Sumlin is many years and many miles away from the dusty roads of Hughes, Arkansas and the moment that changed his life forever, but he remembers it clearly.
“The first time I saw Wolf, he passed by our house going to this place in Arkansas to play,” Sumlin says. “I was really young, probably 11 or 12. I knew where he was playing and I hitchhiked about five miles to the Mississippi River to see him. I crawled into the place and all these ladies was standing up and I couldn’t see, so I went to the door and they threw me out. And I crawled back in under these peoples’ legs and they threw me out again. So I went around and stacked up some Coca-Cola crates that they had in the back so I could see. Somebody snatched them crates and I fell down right onto Wolf’s head. He said, ‘Ladies, bring my son here a chair.’ He called me his son, man. He sat me down between him and Willie Johnson and played. He wouldn’t let me get up, wouldn’t let me get a drink, do anything. When I went to the bathroom, he sent somebody with me and then set me back down. He said, ‘Son, you’re gonna sit and listen and then I’m gonna take you back home to your momma.’ He was like a father to me. I stayed with him for 25 years.”
Over the course of those 25 years, Hubert Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf forged a creative partnership that resulted in some of the most powerful, influential music ever performed. Behind Wolf’s bellowing growl and eerie falsetto, Hubert slipped the slinky, single-string leads and stinging intros that would become the bedrock of Chicago blues. Hubert’s influence can be heard everywhere—in Led Zeppelin, who had the same relationship to Howlin’ Wolf as the Rolling Stones had to Chuck Berry; in Jimi Hendrix, who claimed Hubert as his favorite guitarist; in the Memphis soul 6ths of the great Steve Cropper. Anywhere the blues are played, echoes of Hubert Sumlin can be heard. A quiet and soft-spoken man, Sumlin is humble about his incredible contributions. He is a guitar player’s guitar player, revered by those who really know the blues, but hard-pressed to boast or lay claims to his incredible legacy. He prefers to talk about Wolf—a man he loved like a father—and the music that he has devoted his life to playing and shaping.
By the time Sumlin first met him, Chester Arthur Burnett—the Howlin’ Wolf—was in his early 40s and had led a life of intense trouble and suffering. Born in Mississippi in 1910, Wolf was cast out by his mentally unstable, religious fanatic mother when he refused to sing spirituals and work for 15 cents a day. Just a child, Wolf wandered barefoot and alone many miles to the home of a distant uncle who took him in and abused him terribly. After many years of beatings and grueling labor, Wolf ran away. Through the maze of Ku Klux Klan–controlled countryside, he made his way to Mississippi’s prosperous Dockery Plantation. More like a small town than a working farm, the Dockery Plantation was a magnet for the bluesmen who wandered the Southern countryside playing for tips. It is here that Howlin’ Wolf learned the blues from the legendary Charlie Patton.
A true pioneer of the blues, Patton taught the young Wolf how to play guitar with the percussive, driving rhythm that propelled his music. Wolf also studied Patton’s ability to draw and captivate a crowd. Patton would pound out a beat on his guitar while straddling it between his legs, playing it behind his head, and throwing it up in the air. During the Depression, Wolf and Patton traveled the Delta together, playing with blues giants like Robert Johnson and Son House in the dangerous juke joints that dotted the countryside. After a stint in the Army, Wolf spent the next 10 years drifting and farming, finally settling in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis.
Sumlin, who lost his father at 6, also developed an early love of the blues from Charlie Patton. “When I was young I found this old warped record on the side of the road,” Sumlin says. “It was Charlie Patton and it was so warped that when I put it on the Victrola, the only thing I could hear this guy do is moan. It sounded like Wolf—had that growl in his voice.” Captivated by the blues, Sumlin left his mother’s strict religious home at 14 to escape a life of hard labor and follow the music he was born to play. He settled in West Memphis with future harmonica great James Cotton.
“Cotton was forming this little band,” Sumlin remembers. “He didn’t have it together. He said, ‘Hubert, if I get this band together will you play with me?’ I said sure. We were so young. We used to play for the bucket—pennies and dimes and whatever people give us, at those ball games and road houses like folks do down South. I had an old guitar that Cotton got me, and like a PA system, and we just set up on the street.”
While Memphis is often thought of as a birthplace of blues, it was West Memphis that truly fostered the music. Memphis was more sophisticated, more uptown, and more repressive—there was an 11 o’clock curfew for black people in the city limits. West Memphis, on the other hand, was wide open.
“Oh man!” Sumlin laughs. “They gambled, they did everything in this place. You could go from one little juke joint to the other from 8th Street to 16th Street, where Wolf lived. Wolf had 30 minutes on this radio station in West Memphis called KWEM and he gave me and Cotton 15 minutes. Well, we got so good on those 15 minutes that we started taking his jobs away. We were playing some Charlie Patton songs and then we started playing some of Wolf’s songs. He didn’t get mad, but he took his 15 minutes back!”
Sumlin was not the only one drawn to Wolf because of his weekly radio show. Across the river in Memphis, a young producer named Sam Phillips tuned in and was floored by what he heard. “This is for me,” Phillips famously said. “This is where the soul of man never dies.” Phillips, who had recently founded the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue (“We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime!”), invited Wolf to drop by the studio. At the time, Phillips had already recorded “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, featuring a pounding piano by a young Ike Turner. Considered the first rock and roll song, “Rocket 88” had been a hit in 1951 for Chess Records, a small label owned by Phil and Leonard Chess, tough Polish immigrants who, like the artists they recorded, were looking for a better life in Chicago. Within a few years, Phillips would also found his own label—the legendary Sun Records. Though he would go on to discover, champion, and nurture Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich, among others, Phillips always considered Howlin’ Wolf the most significant artist he ever recorded.
Wolf’s first single, “How Many More Years b/w Moanin’ at Midnight” released on Chess, is the blues at its best. Wolf’s haunting, funeral moans are quickly answered by guitarist Willie Johnson’s gritty, stinging guitar. Drawing on Charlie Patton’s Delta stomp, the song electrifies Mississippi country blues with the menace and aggression of the city and creates a whole new kind of music.“‘How Many More Years’!” Sumlin exclaims. “Ike Turner on piano, Willie Johnson playing guitar, Willie Steele on drums.” Both songs on the single became huge hits.
Over the course of the next year, Wolf continued to cut songs for Phillips, who licensed them to Chess as well as the Bihari brothers’ RPM label in Los Angeles. Wolf’s singles like “Riding in the Moonlight” and “Crying at Daybreak” topped charts around the country, and a bidding war broke out between the Chess brothers and the Biharis. Realizing Wolf was hot, Leonard Chess traveled to Memphis and convinced him to move to Chicago and record for Chess exclusively. Unlike Muddy Waters and the other incredible musicians who created Chicago blues, who came to the city as part of the post-War exodus of blacks who fled the racism and oppression of the rural Jim Crow South in search of economic opportunity, Wolf arrived in the city already a star. “I had a $4,000 car and $3,900 in my pocket,” Wolf said. “I’m the onliest one drove out of the South like a gentleman.”
“Wolf told me, ‘Hubert, I’m leaving. I’m cutting out and I would like for you to head this band that I got,’” Sumlin remembers. “And he came by on his way out in this long red car and he said, ‘Cotton, if I send back and get Hubert will you let him come?’ Cotton said, ‘Hey man, sure.’ Cotton told me, ‘You’ll make more money with him than you will with me.’ I was 20.”
When he arrived in Chicago, Hubert was met at the train station by Otis Spann, Muddy Waters’ piano player. “Wolf sent Otis Spann to the train station to pick me up. I was scared. Wolf said, ‘Hey man, ain’t no need to be nervous.’ He put me up in an apartment in the Chess brothers’ building and had my union card paid up for a year. I didn’t have to do nothing. Otis Spann brought me to Muddy’s and Wolf was sitting up there with Muddy playing cards. I thought, ‘This is great.’ There was music everywhere.”
It is hard to imagine what Chicago must have looked like to the Southerners who flocked to the city, many of whom had lived a rural farming life. Some had never had electricity, much less heard the sound of a cranked, screaming electric guitar.
“We was playing loud!” Sumlin laughs. “Yes! Wolf bought me and [second guitarist] Jody Williams both Kay guitars, just alike. That’s what I played on for a couple years and then Wolf got me a Gibson. Goldtop. Les Paul, man. Somebody stole that guitar and I never did get it back. So I got me another one, and I had a Wabash amp. Wolf bought me this amp and I never will forget it. The first 15” speaker I ever played through. It was loud—and Freddie King blew the speaker! He took it to the shop to repair it and he couldn’t remember where the shop was!”
Muddy Waters, already a huge star in Chicago and the jewel of the label, was instructed by Leonard Chess to introduce Wolf to the city’s blues scene. “Muddy gave him the job at the Zanzibar,” Sumlin says. “And Muddy moved on to Sylvio’s. We had two weeks before we had to start there, so Wolf got me the job with [harmonica virtuoso] Little Walter. Little Walter was a nice fella, man. And he was before his time I believe. He didn’t take no mess. He had a hard time.”
Wolf and Hubert learned the ropes of the tough, cutthroat Chicago scene quickly. With a ferocious band that featured Jody Williams on guitar, Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, and Earl Phillips on drums, they developed a sound unlike anybody else. At the heart of it was Sumlin’s haunting, swinging guitar lines. The hit Chess singles followed one after the other: “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Forty Four,” “I Asked For Water,” “The Natchez Burnin’.” What sounded like loose, electrifying country blues arrangements were actually meticulously worked out by Wolf and Hubert.
“Me and him used to get in the garage and work this stuff out. We’d get it four or five hundred different ways, but we’d always come back to the first one. Then we’d take it to the band.”
With arrangements tightly crafted, the band honed them to a razor edge during long, nightly gigs at tough South Side bars like the 708 Club, the Checkerboard Lounge, and the Zanzibar. By the time the band would roll into the Chess studio, the songs had reached near perfection. Often, Wolf and band would record after a long night of gigging and face the hot-tempered and demanding Leonard Chess behind the boards. As tough a boss as Wolf could be, he was protective of his band, and Hubert in particular. Unlike Waters, who had a closer, more amiable relationship with Leonard Chess, Wolf was known to lock horns with the label. Deeply suspicious as a result of his vicious upbringing, and standing 6’6” and 300 pounds, the Wolf could be a fearsome and intimidating man. “If you said something to him,” Hubert laughs, “you better be right.”
“One time we was in the studio recording ‘Three Hundred Pounds of Joy’,” Hubert says. “I never will forget this. Chess got on the talkback and yelled at me, man. He said, ‘Hey you, you—I ain’t gonna say what he said, man—turn it down!’ And Wolf said, ‘Hey, don’t you holler at him! Don’t you holler at him! If there is anything you want to tell him, you can tell him low.’ And that son-of-a-gun, man, he ain’t said nothing else to me. The only thing Chess and them told me after that was, ‘Hubert, how do you do this? How do you do that? How do you put together these notes so well?’” Hubert laughs hard at the memory. “I told Wolf, ‘Now he talkin’ right.’”
As the heart of Wolf’s band, Sumlin soon became an in-demand guitarist. “Chuck Berry asked Wolf if he could use me on ‘School Days,’” Sumlin says. “Wolf said, ‘Hey man, go ahead on. He’s gonna pay you.’ Sure enough, before we even played, Chuck Berry reached into his pocket and pulled out 35 bucks. That was some money then. And I helped him make ‘School Days’ and on the other side ‘Deep Feeling.’ He had all the notes written out. He could play man.”
The sessions kept coming. “I was playing with Jimmy Reed, on ‘Going to New York’ and a lot of other numbers. If they needed a guitar player, they come to me. I was glad. It made me feel like I was doing something. Not only that, I love the guitar in the first place.”
As Hubert became more renowned, Wolf did his best to keep Hubert in his place. Wolf’s stern discipline led to a situation that nearly ended their close partnership. Hearing that Hubert was open to playing with other people, Muddy Waters sent his chauffer over from Silvio’s to the Zanzibar with a bankroll of cash. “Muddy offered me three times what Wolf was paying, three times over union scale. Union scale was six dollars a night, and then it went up to eight dollars, 10 dollars, 12 dollars. Hey man, I went with him. Took my amp down and went with him. You know how it is when you’re young. Money’s everything.”
Wolf was furious at Hubert’s defection, but Hubert was in for a rough surprise. The day after hiring him, Muddy took the band out on the road, playing 40 shows in 40 nights all over the South. Hubert had to do all the driving. Hubert got back to Chicago miserable, exhausted, and sick. The band pulled in to town just in time for their show at the 708 Club. Hubert called Wolf on his break.
“I said, ‘Hey, man, I want to come back.’ And Wolf said, ‘Where he at? Where he at?’ talking about Muddy. I said, ‘He’s here.’ And Wolf showed up so quick, I was talking to him thinking he was on the phone and I turned around and he was behind me. I turned around to go back into the 708 Club and Wolf opened the door! Muddy was sitting over there at the table with his women, drunk. He was going to make the band play for him anyway. We had just drove from Miami and we stopped somewhere and got some homemade whiskey and them guys was all drunk. Wolf was yelling, ‘Where he at? Where he at?’ I said, ‘He’s over there at the table.’ Man, Muddy was so drunk, but he got just as sober as a judge when Wolf pointed his finger at him. Wolf said, ‘You gonna have to get up there and play now. I come to get my son.’”
Unlike many of the Chess artists, Wolf and Hubert would continue to have hits long after rock and roll, Motown, and Stax threatened the popularity of the blues. Songs like “Hidden Charms,” “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” and “Killing Floor”—all from 1963 and 1964—were some of the strongest songs Wolf and Hubert ever recorded. While gigs dwindled for Muddy Waters and others, Wolf’s showmanship continued to draw crowds to the South Side. More and more, the crowds contained the young white players who would carry the music to a larger audience. Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and Charlie Musselwhite became loving and dutiful students of Hubert and Wolf. At the same time, the Rolling Stones scored a hit with a version of Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster.” The Stones paid thanks to him by insisting the producers of Shindig! book Wolf on the show. It was Howlin’ Wolf’s only U.S. television appearance and Wolf would maintain a friendship with the band for the rest of his life.
“It was beautiful, man,” Hubert says of hearing his riffs played back by young white bands on the radio. “Kinda weird, but beautiful.” Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and others, have all cited Hubert as a major influence. Clapton took it a step farther. Chess did not want to pay for Hubert’s airfare for the recording of The London Sessions, a successful 1970 attempt to expose Wolf to a larger audience by teaming him with a supergroup of English musicians. Clapton put his foot down. “They didn’t want to send me, man. And Eric Clapton called them up at Chess and said, ‘Hey, if Hubert ain’t there, I ain’t gonna be there either.’” The session captured a touching moment as an ailing Wolf, suffering kidney failure, shows a young Clapton how to play the slide part from “Little Red Rooster.”
Wolf continued to perform until the very end of his life. Even while receiving dialysis treatment, Wolf gave all during his performances—crawling on all fours, howling, passionately working the crowd. At one of his last shows, his performance was so draining that he had to be taken away by ambulance at the end of the night. The memories are still fresh and painful for Hubert.
“Just before he passed, me and Wolf were supposed to leave for Paris, France. I went to the airport and I was waiting on him, thinking I would meet him there. But he was slow about getting there. And sure enough, man, his wife called the airport. She said, ‘Hubert, Wolf checked himself back into the hospital. He’s having chest pains.’ And I raced over to the hospital where Wolf was to find out what was what. I got to the hospital and Wolf was sitting up there eating Colonel Sanders’ chicken! He said, ‘Hubert, I’m okay, go on over and keep our name on the show.’ I got to Paris and he lived five more days. I got over there and I got this telegram, from Wolf, from the hospital. It said, ‘You wanna see your father? You wanna see your daddy? You better make it here.’ I cried Lord have mercy. They got me to the airport. I got back to Chicago and went straight to the hospital and they had Wolf’s eyes taped. Taped! He was dead. He wanted to tell me something. I don’t know what it was, but I have an idea. I believe he was going to tell me about the music.”
Hubert pauses. He has had his own health scares of late. Last year, he beat cancer, but not before he had a lung removed. After recovering, he went on to record the great and Grammy-nominated About Them Shoes, with appearances by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. He tours regularly, playing a powerful set of Wolf hits with a band that often includes Levon Helm of the Band, Jimmy Vivino, and David Johansen of the New York Dolls. At 80, he has spent his whole life pioneering, preserving, and playing some of the deepest, most powerful music ever made. He has no plans to let up.
“I’m not through yet,” he promises. “There is something here I’ve got to do. And I believe it is in this music and I believe it is something I have to show people. There is something I’ve got to do, man.”