Monday, December 5, 2011

Song of the Week: Howlin' Wolf (featuring Hubert Sumlin) - Smokestack Lightning

Hubert Sumlin died yesterday. He was 80. I would like to think that most everyone knows and appreciates what he did for blues music, but that just isn't the case. Hubert Sumlin was the quiet, diminutive and happy-go-lucky sideman to blues giant, Howlin' Wolf.

Howlin' Wolf first started working with Hubert Sumlin when Sumlin was still a teen, and not terribly confident on guitar. Sumlin played second guitar to Willie Johnson. Where Willie Johnson was aggressive in his playing and his life and would musically go toe to toe with the massive Howlin' WolfSumlin sat back and remained quiet.
When Willie Johnson parted ways with Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin was moved to first chair. His style had not taken shape and Howlin' Wolf pushed him hard, perhaps too hard. In a wonderful Howlin' Wolf documentary film, Sumlin recounts how Wolf would badger and bully him to be better. As they worked on an important recording, Howlin' Wolf grew impatient at what he felt was Sumlin's lack of originality. As he often did, Wolf sent Sumlin packing. As Sumlin packed up his gear and began to leave the studio, Howlin' Wolf yelled after him something along the lines of "put your guitar pick away. Learn how to play with your fingers and come back with something that will stand out. If you don't trust yourself to play something great then how I can trust you to play something great? You can come back tomorrow and have one more try at it. If I don't like what you have, then I will let (studio musician and Wolf's second guitarist on the session) Buddy Guy take it over." With that, Sumlin recounted, the wallflower that was Hubert Sumlin went home, cried and began on the task Howlin' Wolf had given him: A finger picking guitar riff that would compliment the song. The next morning, fingers raw from a sleepless night of playing his new riff, Hubert Sumlin came back to Chess Studios where Wolf and his band, including Buddy Guy were ready to record. Wolf tersely told Sumlin he better impress and that he only had one chance to do so. Hubert Sumlin sat down and began to play his finger-picking riff in the key of E. After a few seconds Howlin' Wolf interrupted Sumlin's audition and turned to producer Leonard Chess and said, "you ready to record?". With that the band took off on Howlin' Wolf's biographical song, Smokestack Lightning. The guitar riff was unique and catchy and fit perfectly with the song and Wolf's pain stricken tale. The guitar riff would soon be pilfered by Dale Hawkin's own teenage guitarist, James Burton, to create the iconic Suzie Q. Bands like The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, Creedence Clearwater Revival and a host of others would also mine the guitar riff with great success.
The relationship between Hubert Sumlin and Howlin' Wolf was very similar to father and son. As detailed in James Segrest's book, Moanin at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, the two did not always get along, but they always respected each other, looked out for each other and, in the end, were always inseparable. An illustrative tale from the book stands out. While touring thru the South shortly after Wolf had "made it", Howlin' Wolf drove the tour bus late one night to a spot not on the route. Wolf was quiet and tense and the whole band had fallen asleep in the back. Sumlin, sensing something was up, sat with his mentor in the front row and said nothing. Wolf stopped the bus in front of a run-down house and walked tentatively to the front door before eventually knocking on the door. An elderly woman came to the door and and the powerful Howlin' Wolf began to shake and said "Mama, it's me, Chester. How ya doing?". His mother had rejected him years before for a violent incident that happened when a teenage Chester Burnett, now The Wolf, had laid out a man he found on his mother's property. She told him to leave and he had not seen her in the 30 or so years since. That incident, by the way, is the major theme of the song, Smokestack Lightnin' as it is in another of his songs, Back Door Man.  Howlin' Wolf handed the elderly lady a $100 bill, a fortune in the mid-50's. The mother ripped up the money and threw the pieces on the ground proclaiming she wouldn't take money earned by singing the devil's music. With that she turned and went back into the house. The mighty Wolf fell to his knees and wept. Hubert stepped out of the car and walked his friend to the passenger seat and then took over the driving duties. Sumlin only said, "I'm sorry Wolf" and the two never spoke of the incident again. And the rest of the band never woke and never knew of the moment of vulnerability.
Another interesting tale, this time from Robert Gordon's book, Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, is when, in one of the common instances of Sumlin and Wolf parting ways, Sumlin quickly got snatched up by arch-rival Muddy Waters. Wolf had more than able musicians filling in, but they weren't Hubert. One night Howlin' Wolf burst into a club on Maxwell street and pushed his way to front and center of the stage and began heckling Muddy Waters for stealing his guitarist. Muddy could give as good as Wolf and began taunting Wolf. After a few rounds, Howlin' Wolf pointed to Sumlin and said something along the lines of "get off that damn stage with these fools, you're my guitarist." At this point the band stopped playing and one of Waters' musicians pulled out a gun (the two books talk incessantly about how many guns and knives were stored in blues musicians' guitar cases). Wolf moved onto the stage and headed right at the man pointing a gun at him and said something akin to "you better put that away before I pull it out of your hands." With that Muddy Waters signaled to the sideman to stand down and Howlin' Wolf unplugged Hubert's amp and walked off.  Hubert packed up his guitar and followed Howlin' Wolf out of the club.
Hubert Sumlin remained Howlin' Wolf's sideman until Wolf died in 1976. Hubert's unique, bouncing and warbling guitar riffs often spoke in retort to Wolf's guttural howls. Any musician knows how important Hubert was to Wolf. Wolf knew it and he would stand up to defend it.

I got a chance to see Hubert Sumlin perform when he was but a spry 75 years old. His skills had diminished, that's for sure. Guitarist GE Smith performed with him and brilliantly would fill a missing part as soon as Sumlin would stumble. But still, at 75, he was a better guitarist with far more style than the vast majority of the strat-n-a-hat SRV clones that fill every blues jam around the globe. I got to shake his hand and see him smile and hear him play. How damn cool is that?

Enjoy this great live performance of Howlin' Wolf with Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, Clifton James and, of course, Hubert Sumlin off on the right of our screen. Dig that crazy guitar work.

Thank you Hubert Sumlin!


  1. Lovely tribute Morgan. It's hard to imagine a more perfect musical combination than Hubert and the Wolf. It was a real privelege to shake his hand that night at Blues Alley, and to see him play, even in his diminished state. RIP Hubert.

  2. I just saw a Viagra commercial with Hubert's guitar work (Smokestack Lightning opening riff) front and center. Caught me by surprise. I guess they are using the song to suggest that if you take Viagra, you too, will have a smokestack that strikes like lightning. :)

    I also heard on the radio last night that Keith Richards has been paying for Hubert Sumlin's medical bills and will fund Sumlin's funeral. As someone who rails on the 60's Brits for stealing from the blues musicians without attribution (See Zep Etymology), it is very refreshing to hear that one of them is indeed stepping up to the plate. Major kudos to KR.