Folks who favor stylistic extravagance won’t cotton to Hubert Sumlin. Now 77, the guitarist made his niche complementing rather than competing with the outsized voice and talent of the legendary Howlin’ Wolf, who was a blues shouter, par excellence. During his 22-year tenure, when Wolf took a breath, Hubert darted in with a phrase so slippery and startled that it furthered and tilted the song’s momentum at the same time. And when a classic blues riff was called for — say, the stalking refrain on “Smokestack Lightning” — he imbued it with the subtle emotional depth and deft technical flourish that has always separated the old men from the boys playing the blues.
It’s fitting that one of Sumlin’s greatest champions is Rolling Stone Keith Richard, who borrowed liberally from Sumlin when the Stones covered Wolf’s songs early in their career, and who learned from Sumlin that the longest-lasting guitar legacies are built upon more than the sum of flashy solos. Richard produced Sumlin’s “About Those Shoes” CD in 2000, which also featured Eric Clapton, drummer Levon Helm from The Band, and one of Sumlin’s first musical partners, harp player James Cotton. Due to contractual snafus, it wasn’t released until 2004, the same year Sumlin was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a lung removed.
That near-death prospect makes every gig precious. The first time I saw Sumlin was in the Boston basement club known as Paul’s Mall in the mid-’70s with Howlin’ Wolf. The two images that endure were the more than foot-long swath of muscular leg between the tops of Wolf’s white socks and the bottom of his pants when the giant sat down, and the sparkling bemusement in Sumlin’s eyes as he stabbed out phrases in his ongoing cat-and-mouse game with Wolf’s vocals. The last time I saw Sumlin was a year and a half ago, when, after chatting amiably with folks backstage during a Legends of Chicago Blues gig in suburban Milwaukee, he suddenly fell ill and was wheeled out on a gurney by paramedics out of misplaced fear of a heart attack (it was more likely indigestion from the pepperoni circles he was gobbling down).
On Friday, Sumlin will be at Famous Dave’s with former Muddy Waters drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who is now a rugged harmonica player. The cover charge is $5, a ridiculous bargain. Here is a marvelous video of Sumlin teaching guitar, revealing his sweet personality and biography along with his inimitable licks. Here he is with Smith at a live gig two years ago (go to the middle for Sumlin’s stuff). And here is Sumlin at another gig four years ago.
Hubert Sumlin at Famous Dave’s at Calhoun Square in Minneapolis, Friday, July 31, 9 p.m., $5.