Hubert Sumlin, who died in Wayne, N.J., of heart failure Sunday at 80, is a crucial figure whose remarkable, mercurial, breathtaking style and long-standing legacy (Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan owed him a debt; Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton even more so) is a subject for far more scholarly scribes.
But what everyone interested in the blues should know, is that as Howlin' Wolf's guitarist, from the mid-1950s until Wolf's death in 1976, Sumlin was responsible for some of the most enduring and electrifying blues music of any era, from any region.
Born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1931, and raised in Arkansas, Sumlin is most closely associated with Chicago, where he migrated as a young man. He got his first gig with singer James Cotton, then moved to Chicago in 1953. There, he met Howlin' Wolf.
"Smokestack Lightning," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Spoonful" (famously covered by Cream), "Back Door Man," "Hidden Charms" (boasting some of his most incredible playing), "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy," the vicious "Killing Floor" (later one of Hendrix's most wicked jams) - all of them bear the unforgettable Sumlin mark, as much as they do Howlin' Wolf. At his peak, on seminal sides for Sun Records and Chess Records, his playing was often nothing short of a jolt to the senses - so ironic, considering what a quiet, gentle soul he reportedly was.
Sumlin toured with members of Howlin' Wolf's band in a band called the Wolf Pack into the 1980s, and he performed with a variety of artists on a variety of records. In 2002, he had a lung removed because of cancer, yet he performed with an oxygen tank at his side. Keith Richards reportedly helped pay his medical bills. Even in those last years, Sumlin's fretwork could still be astonishing.
Had he cut only a handful of his galvanizing records with the Wolf, Sumlin still would have been powerhouse enough to rank high on Rolling Stone's recent list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. (He came in at No. 43.)