Perefct Sound Forever preseents
Interview by Jason Gross (February 1997)
If you're a blues fan, you have to know Howlin' Wolf. If you know Wolf, you should know the man who was instrumental in his electric, fiery sound, matching Wolf's growl all the way. Hubert Sumlin is an acknowledged hero to many famous guitarists: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page just for starters have raved about him. Even after Wolf's death in early 1975, Sumlin had carried on in a rich tradition that continues today as he tours all over and records new music. In the last year alone, he's done shows along with blues singer Koko Taylor and avant garde bandleader Elliot Sharpe. Now in his seventies, he has no intention of slowing down and his live shows are the proof- I witnessed a doosy that had people begging for more at TERRA BLUES (149 Bleecker Street, New York City, 212-777-7776). A billion thanks also to Dean Schott and Justin Sherrill.
This originally appeared in PERFECT SOUND FOREVER
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH MUSIC?
I was eight years old when I had my first guitar. My brother, he already had this one-string up on the wall. He was playing this thing and he had this bottle he used for his slide. It changed key, sliding this bottle up the string. I saw him and I said 'Oh my, that's it! I'm going to be beat this.' So I put him up another string. He called me smart. He went to messing with that string. I said to myself 'I'm going to learn to play strings. I'm going to play both of them.' He started messing around and put up another string. Then we had five strings up and we ain't got the sixth string yet! Then my mother goes to town and she found out that both of us were going to play guitar. She figured that he wouldn't do right. He got mad because I broke the first string he had. So she bought me a guitar. It was a whole week's pay. She was working at a funeral home, four miles from where we lived in the country. She was making eight dollars a week. So we didn't know how we were going to eat that next week. But we made it. I kept that guitar for about 12 years, until it got so bad that you couldn't play it. I think some of the guitars from then sound better than some of the guitars today. No kidding.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
Mississippi. I was born in Greenwood and I grew up in Arkansas. I left Mississippi when I was eight and I had my first guitar. When I moved there, I went to school one day and there comes James Cotton. We started being friends. He started messing around and I was already playing. I thought I was it and he thought I was it! He couldn't play no harp then but he was trying. So finally he started blowing harp. He knew all those people, these musicians like (guitarist) Pat Hare who had played with Bobby 'Blue' Bland. He went and got Pat and got a piano player and a drummer. We started playing these honky-tonks. Friday night, Saturday night and on Sunday people had to rest because they had to go back to work. We was wailing and sometimes these people would get to fighting so we'd get out of there. They'd give us pennies, dimes.
WHAT KIND OF MATERIAL WERE YOU PLAYING THEN?
Old stuff. Whatever Cotton knew. Muddy, Wolf and all these people. We got 15 minutes on the air. Then Wolf came along and we got 30 minutes. This was on a radio station in West Memphis. KWM, I think it was. Wolf was on KWM with this group. Wolf was selling groceries and advertising in these grocery stores. He asked Cotton if he wanted to be on the air. So he got us 15 minutes on the air behind him.
DID HE HAVE A REPUTATION THEN?
He had a very good reputation then. Everybody loved him. He singed so rough, like Muddy. Man, we would come on for 15 minutes, me and Cotton and Pat Hare. So more people would throw nickels in our hat. I worked with him (Cotton) until I was in my teens. Then Wolf came by one day and he asked Cotton 'I'm fixing to leave the old band and go to Chicago- how about that guy Hubert coming along? My old band doesn't want to do this and that.' I didn't believe him. But sure enough, two weeks later, he sent back and got me and his wife. I said to Cotton 'I hate to leave you.' He said 'Go on with Wolf, you'll make more money with him.' We grew up together and we were like brothers. So I got with Wolf.
But then I quit Wolf. You know how it is with a youngster. You get to see the big lights and everything. I was going to get triple the money with Muddy. So Wolf said 'YOU GO ON WITH HIM! I brought you here! You're coming back!' I went with Muddy and told me 'We're going out of town. You got enough clothes?' I had a suit in my bag because that's what Wolf allowed us to wear. He said 'Man, we got forty-one nights to do.' I said 'WHAT? Now, you tell me!' I was ready to go back to Wolf and I didn't even get out of town yet to tour. I didn't even play my first gig. I called Wolf but he said 'Don't come back to me until you made up your mind.' He wanted to let me learn. So some of those gigs (with Muddy) were a thousand miles apart. You had to be at that gig the next night. I did them but by the time I got back, I called Wolf. I said 'Hey man, I'm back.' We had to play a club so I had to play that same night that I got back from Muddy. So Muddy started crying but Wolf said 'Don't start that junk with me. I brought him here. You don't have that old guitar player that I got.' They didn't argue too often, they listened to one another. Both of them were legendary.
WAS THERE A LOT OF RIVALRY BETWEEN MUDDY AND WOLF?
There was. One thought he could beat the other. That's the way it was. It was like that for years. Then years later at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, the last one in the seventies, something happened that I'd never seen before. They got together and they were both sick. They sat down and started hugging one another and made us get out of the way so they could talk to one another. They made up. That's the first time I'd even seen those guys together. It was like a home-coming, a reunion, like kids. You don't see one another for 20, 30 years, it's like you haven't seen each other for a lifetime. They acted like kids, they drank beer, they hugged and they cried. They made the bands get out of the way. That was the biggest thrill that I had to see those guys get together after that happened with them two.
I had to learn half the music just to fit in (with Wolf's band). But I thank God for what happened to me.
WAS THE MUSIC SCENE IN MEMPHIS A LOT DIFFERENT THAN THE ONE IN CHICAGO?
The music sounded better and more sincere there in Chicago. It was still the blues. You can't update the blues too much. Then you say 'that ain't the blues, that's too jazzy.' The tradition that started down there in New Orleans, Tennessee, Arkansas- we had a different sound from everybody else. When we got to Chicago, we found people from New Orleans, people from Mississippi, people from the South all together in one place then. Everyone was playing different. One had two chords and one had two chords. It had taken me a while to get the style. But I learned a lot. Playing all of kinds of blues, glad blues, sad blues.
SO YOU'RE STYLE OF PLAYING CHANGED A LOT WHEN YOU CAME TO CHICAGO?
Sure it did. I know it did. You have to. But today, we're trying to change too much. There ain't but one thing. You got to stay with what you got. I used to listen to Charlie Patton but he was dead by the time I got started. But Wolf and Muddy saw him and all those old guys. I got to Chicago just before the real Sonny Boy Williamson died. My cousin played with him the night he got killed. I missed him by two weeks. I didn't get a chance to see a lot of those people but I knew about them. I read about them and I'd find those old records in the garbage, all warped. I could understand what these guy were doing.
HOW DID YOU WORK OUT SONGS WITH WOLF?
So many people ask me that. It's simple. Well, it was simple to me. We'd sit down and talk and work the stuff out. I'd work on a song that Wolf had with his voice and he'd go with it. He allowed me the chance to do this. 'Hey man, you do this and we'll make it. I got this song we got to do it so let's try it.' Nobody but me and him. The band wouldn't even be there until he'd get ready to record. Me and him and Willie Dixon. When Willie Dixon was there, we worked it out. But Willie Dixon didn't put the music to nothing! I put the music to those records. I'm proud of that. He let me. You know how musicians are now- you go into a studio and stay there for MONTHES. But we did it in a month and got it 200 different ways. And we memorized what we did in those 200 different ways. So we figured out the best sound and what would fit and the best that you think the public would like. That's what we did. It wasn't hard.
HOW DID YOU GET ALONG WITH WOLF OUTSIDE OF RECORDING?
Nice. You know, we had arguments and I was young in the big city. I heard of (Little) Walter and Muddy but I knew that Wolf was good. I went to see him when I was ten. That's when I started playing. I'm so glad that I had a chance to spend twenty-three and a half years with the guy. I don't believe that he's gone but he is, for a while now.
NOT IN SPIRIT THOUGH.
That's right. Not in spirit.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN ALL THESE BIG ENGLISH ROCK STARS STARTED TALKING UP YOUR MUSIC IN THE SIXTIES AND ALSO GETTING A CHANCE TO PLAY WITH THEM TOO?
It didn't change things much. I think it was hopeless. I really do. Them guys was just doing the riffs that I was doing. When they did the London session (1970), they didn't want me to be on the record. The (record) company in the States just wanted Wolf with Eric Clapton and the rest of the guys. They was going to leave me back. Eric made a statement, telegraphed these people. If I wasn't going to be on there, he wasn't going to be on there. So they said to me 'hey man, pack your bags- you got to go!' So we did it. He (Wolf) was so sick. He had a doctor with him every day and every night. He was really sick and we only had two weeks to do this. But we did it in eight days. There were two nights I remember when we didn't do anything because he was so sick. But we got it together.
YOU AND WOLF ALSO GOT TO MEET UP WITH JIMI HENDRIX. WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF HIM?
I think that Wolf was just as impressed as I was when we saw that man coming. We played Liverpool at this castle. They was in the garage rehearsing when we got there. In walks Jimi Hendrix that night. He sitting down in front with all this stuff on. Wow man! Wolf saw him and got scared. He wanted to play guitar with me and he's like 'yes sir, Mr. Wolf.' So this guy starts playing with his teeth. I looked at Wolf and thought 'uh oh, I'm fired.' Wolf told me 'he's going to be somebody.' When we got back to New York, we played a show and in walks Jimi Hendrix. He got his stuff together for his first record with the Experience. Wolf opened up the aisle and he came to the bandstand again.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HIS STYLE OF PLAYING?
This guy wanted to play everything. I think he recorded a number of our songs. I think if he had been living today, I don't know what his style would have been. I don't believe that he could have been no greater than he was. I think he had found out what he could do or at least some of it. He reached a peak of what he wanted to accomplish. But things happen. You live young and you die young and it hurts. A lot of musicians that I knew were like that, like Magic Sam who lived next door to me. But life goes on. You got the old men out there trying to take up some of the slack. That's my job! That's why I don't mind when these youngster ask me for help and I'm teaching quite a few of them right now. They listen. Somebody got to do it.
A LOT OF MUSIC STYLES ARE FADS BUT THE BLUES IS ALWAYS WITH US. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
I don't know. The way I think, it's going to be here. They said 'it's going to die' and 'it's going to do this' but it's going to be here until we leave it. I think it's that people live this stuff and even the youngsters too. The old men leave stuff back there for them and these kids have to pick it up.
WHAT KIND OF THINGS WERE YOU DOING AFTER WOLF DIED?
After Wolf died, I quit for three monthes. I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to play any more. I got to laying in bed one night and I was thinking. I said 'I can't do this- he would want me to play.' And you're doing something you love too. So here I am!
HOW HAS YOUR STYLE CHANGED SINCE THEN?
That's what I was talking about. That's what I meant to say. I think people got their own style. You try to tell a story, tell it right, you live the story. That's what I think that Wolf did and Muddy did. They lived this. What they sung about, what they said. This actually happened to them. It's in the way you say it and the way you sing it. You have to live it. I know I have and I know the rest of them have seen it. This is why it's going to be here and this happens today with people. It maybe a little faster or a little classier but it comes down to 'you playin' the blues or you ain't.'
WHAT KIND OF PLANS DO YOU HAVE FOR THE FUTURE?
I'm going to make some more CD's. I'm going to take one day at a time. As long as God gives me my strength, I'm going to make a lot of folks happy and do my thing. I know what time is. That's what happens with a lot of these young people. 'Yeah, you know how to play but you don't understand life yet.' That's what Wolf told them. I know it!
YOU'RE TOURING A LOT NOW?
I just did a Blues Cruise from Florida to the Carribbean. I was there with Gatemouth (Clarence Brown) and Koko Taylor. That ship got me on the way back, going up and down and up and down!
ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR SONGS THAT YOU'VE PLAYED THAT HAVE SPECIAL MEANING TO YOU?
I knew that 'Goin' Down Slow' was going to be a hit. I knew ' Shake It For Me' was going to be a hit. 'I Should Have Quit You' was going to be a hit. All the songs. 'Smokestack Lightning' I knew all these numbers was going to sell. I knew it. I mean, I could FEEL it. Wolf said 'hey, I think we got something.' And I said 'I think we got something too.' It's not just because I put to music to it. It just had a lot to it, that's it. If he were around to sing them today, I'll tell him 'you sing 'em and I'll play.' These are some of my greatest moments. When I'm recording, I got some numbers that I know I'm going to do too (for the live sets). The same stuff. It ain't but one thing. It's going to be deeper. It ain't going to be too long. I'm working on some material. I've been working on it a long time but I got to get the right band. It's hard, very hard. Everybody's got their own stuff.
WHO WERE THE BIGGEST INFLUENCES ON YOUR MUSIC OTHER THAN WOLF?
I like a lot of people, especially some women, doing things today that are really going places. We don't have too many women when you think about it, who can get down to the nitty gritty with this stuff. I see some people coming in who you know are going to be somebody, just like with Ma Rainy. Some of it is the best stuff I've ever seen. You'll see. I'll have some of this stuff on my record. You're going to hear a lot during my show.
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