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Longtime Howlin' Wolf collaborator Hubert Sumlin still plays the low-down, dirty blues. But these days, he feels good.
"I'm feeling fine. I'm ready to go to work, you know," Sumlin says by phone from his Milwaukee home. "I think this summer's going to be a pretty busy period for me now."
And that's a good thing for blues fans and rock 'n' roll fans alike. British invaders and American wannabes have plundered Sumlin's guitar style chunky, funky chords and slinky pointed leads for decades. (For reference, pull out Led Zeppelin II. Half of those licks are cribbed directly from Sumlin's work on Wolf's great Chess sides).
But, like the song says, there ain't nothing like the real thing. And people the world over will experience the real thing this summer; coming up on Sumlin's schedule are dates throughout Europe the Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, Switzerland. He's also doing the summer blues fest circuit, which will bring him to the Eastpointe Blues 'n' Cruise Festival this week.
Sumlin is in good health and riding high on a brilliant new album. But he wasn't feeling so hot a couple of years ago. He lost a lung to cancer and subsequently suffered a heart attack. "The doctors gave me a clean bill of health," Sumlin says. "I can breathe, I can walk, and I can play, man, and this is what it's all about."
Talking to Sumlin is like conversing with a living, thinking and talking history book. He's filled with joie de vivre and he loves to tell stories and he has a lot of them. Like how, when he was 7 years old, his brother had a string of baling wire nailed to the side of the house that he would play music on.
"I broke his string upside his house," Sumlin says. "And he hit me, man. And I'm a little guy; he was large, big." When Sumlin told his mother about the scrap, it was clear that his brother would be in big trouble.
"We didn't see him for three days," Sumlin says.
But they patched things up quickly. "After I got my first guitar, I let him play it. I played it for two weeks before I let him play on it."
The 73-year-old Sumlin was born in Greenwood, Miss. His mother used her entire $5 weekly paycheck to buy him his first guitar when he was 7. She worked at a school, and she had to walk eight miles each way to and from work, Sumlin says. He joined Howlin' Wolf's band in 1954, and together they made a series of records that defined urban electric blues titles like "Killing Floor," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Going Down Slow," "Built for Comfort" and "300 Pounds of Joy." He also briefly worked with Muddy Waters.
An authorized Sumlin biography was recently released. Incurable Blues: The Troubles and Triumph of Blues Legend Hubert Sumlin was written by Will Romano from first-person interviews with Sumlin.
"I think it turned out OK because everything I said in the book is right," Sumlin says, laughing. "I had some hard times, but I wouldn't give nothing for what happened, up to right now."
Of course, Detroit has been a frequent stop for Sumlin over the years. "Everytime I go to Detroit, I enjoy myself," he says.
Sumlin says he's looking forward to playing in Detroit because he has family in Flint. "I know they're going to be at the show; I ain't seen 'em in so long."
He remembers playing the Motor City the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. "They stopped us from playing. I hated that, because we had two more days to do there."
Sumlin is touring in support of About Them Shoes, his new Artemis release. The album is a tribute to Muddy Waters and features collaborators who are a testament to his influence: Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, James Cotton and David Johansen among others. The record features seven Waters songs, four that Willie Dixon wrote for Waters, and one Sumlin composition.
At the Eastpointe festival, Sumlin will be backed up by Tom Holland and the Shuffle Kings, a Chicago-based outfit that has been working with him on Midwest dates recently.
Sumlin plans to release a follow-up to About Them Shoes filled with Wolf songs. He is also recording an album of new material with New York Dolls frontman Johansen, who is a frequent collaborator and who does a helluva Howlin' Wolf imitation. Sessions for the record in New York are going well, Sumlin says, but the record's not finished yet.
"We have to get these schedules right. He's busy with the Dolls and so forth."
Friday, June 17, at the Eastpointe Blues 'n' Cruise Festival (Merollis Chevrolet parking lot, 21800 Gratiot Ave., Eastpointe; cruisingratiot.com) at 8:45 p.m. Also on the bill are Eddie Kirkland with RJ's Rhythm Rockers, Doug Deming & The Jeweltones and the Rythmatics. The festival continues Saturday with sets by Jim McCarty and Mystery Train, the Who Doo Band, Thornetta Davis and Chris Duarte.
Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer and editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.