Guitarmania lX (2008)
Hubert Sumlin is a living legend. He is the hero of all our guitar heroes but he doesn't think about that. Sumlin grew up playing his guitar with harmonica great James Cotton. In 1949 at the age of eighteen he became Howlin' Wolf's lead guitarist, a position he held down for the next twenty-five years, except for a brief six-month stint in Muddy Waters' band. He has played with Pinetop Perkins, Willie Dixon, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and countless others. He counts among his biggest fans Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and John Mayer as well as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, both of whom play on About Them Shoes, Sumlin's brand new album.
Sumlin was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. At the age of seven his family moved to Arkansas. Around this time, Sumlin began fiddling around with some string his brother had nailed into a wall. The young boy became so proficient playing this twine (and annoyed his brother so) that his mother took a week's paycheck and bought her son a guitar of his own to play. History, as they like to say, was made.
"I can still remember that day," Sumlin, now seventy-three, recounts with a smile. "My mom worked at a funeral parlor four miles away. She had to walk eight miles a day there and back to work. It was a Friday and I ran and met her. I loved that guitar, man. Played it all the time. I still have what's left of it."
Sumlin's mother did not waste her money. Soon her son was playing every day, jamming with anyone he could play with and completely taken with the blues. "I found a beat-up old Charley Patton record on the side of the road. It was so warped, but I cranked up an old phonograph and threw it on," Sumlin says with a wicked grin. "The record split wide open, but what I heard changed me forever. All I could hear was that man moan and that was enough for me." After hearing Patton, he recalls, "and then Muddy and Wolf playing I said 'Oh man, this is what I'm going to be. This is what I want to do.'"
Along the way Sumlin seems to have inspired just about every major rock 'n' roll guitarist with his guitar lines. From Jeff Beck to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan -- all have cited Sumlin as a major influence on their work. Obviously, when it was time to enter the studio and record About Them Shoes, Sumlin had no problem putting together an all-star band to play with him. It was no surprise when Rolling Stone Magazine included Hubert on their list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time in 2003.
Produced by Rob Fraboni (Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton), About Them Shoes features eleven songs associated with blues great Muddy Waters, along with one Hubert Sumlin original. Sumlin and Eric Clapton open the album with their dueling guitars on a vibrant and gritty version of the Willie Dixon classic "I'm Ready", with Clapton adding some of the most intense and saucy vocals of his career. From there the record takes off with the most raucous Chicago-style blues to come blasting out of a stereo in some time, all the while turning this time-tested genre on its head over and over again.
Keith Richards joins Sumlin with dirty guitars and smoke-fueled vocals on Muddy Waters' rousing "Still a Fool." David Johansen can be found howling at the moon and God knows what else on Waters' "Walkin' Through The Park." Richards, Johansen, and Clapton all return to lend their guitars, voices and magic elsewhere on About Them Shoes.
The meat and potatoes of About Them Shoes is served up by the talented and virtuosic band Sumlin has put together for the sessions. In addition to Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, About Them Shoes features Levon Helm of The Band, former Muddy Waters sidemen Paul Oscher and Bob Margolin, Mudcat Ward, David Maxwell, George Receli, Nathaniel Peterson, and Blondie Chaplin - and Sumlin's boyhood friend James Cotton also makes an appearance. And let's not forget Sumlin himself, driving this record with his six-stringed axe into some damn fine uncharted territory.
Besides the new album Sumlin is the subject of a biography entitled Incurable Blues, by Will Romano to be released this year by Back Beat Books. The man who created the unforgettable licks of "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Smokestack Lightnin'" is also featured in the new Martin Scorcese/Antoine Fuqua blues performance film "Lightning In A Bottle." The film documents the "Year of the Blues" concert which took place on Febuary 7th, 2003 at NYC's Radio City Music Hall.
Taken as a whole About Them Shoes is a snapshot of Sumlin and his friends carrying on and having nothing but a good time. "I live for the blues," Sumlin attests. "And when you love something you're going to do it better. You may even be able to do something you shouldn't be able to. This is my dream," he goes on. "I have the best musicians around and I want to keep doing things I've never done before. And I know I can, I just know it."
In a way, Hubert Sumlin is the reason we listen to music. He's the reason we bought and own all those wonderful records. He is, in essence, the pure joy of the music. He lives it, embodies it, and walks around with it every single day. "About Them Shoes," Hubert is prone to explain, "is the way you walk. If you walk the blues, you're going to play the blues. It's in your heart. It's in your mind. It's all about those shoes, man." He pauses for a second, "I came into this world loving what I do and I got more spirit now and I just love what I'm doing, and you know what? I think you're gonna love it too. Thank you."
No Hubert, thank YOU.