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RIP Hubert Sumlin

Hubert Sumlin was honestly one of my greatest influences as a guitar player. Before I even knew his name I had some Howlin Wolf best of that I had picked up out of a used CD bin that I listened to over and over again. I was in high school and still discovering the blues. At the time, I couldn’t have told you then what drew me to the Wolf’s music, but looking back I can tell you that a big part of it was Hubert Sumlin’s playing. He was never flashy. He didn’t play a lot of notes. He slid and stabbed at the guitar. He was always playing to the rhythm, even when he was holding down the “lead guitar” spot.

I was lucky enough to see him lives several times. The first time was in a tent on the edge of the Mississippi river in Memphis. I remember skipping out on Willie Nelson to go see him. It wasn’t just a museum piece. He was lively and raucous, and having a blast. Later on I skipped out on work early, pretending to be sick, to rush to New York to see him playing with David Johansen and Levon Helm. Unfortunately, he wasn’t feeling well and cancelled that night. A few years later he played a mile from my apartment, at the Brighton Bar. I got to stand right in front of the stage and watch him play. I saw him barley two months ago, brought on stage by Elvis Costello as a special guest, in what might have been his final performance. He was frail but seemed to be enjoying himself as much as ever. Rarely do you see someone taking such joy in music.

Hubert Sumlin’s playing was as primal and unadorned as Howlin Wolf’s singing, which might be why they made such a good pair. Like all my favorite guitar players, he was an example of feel and taste trumping technical expertise. He played the music he felt. No more no less. And the world is a darker place without him.


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