Hubert Sumlin, guitarist and sideman to Howlin' Wolf for most of his career, became an unwitting inspiration for a generation of British rockers including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. When the Big Head Blues Club rolls out in celebration of Robert Johnson's 100th birthday, Sumlin, who turned 79 this year, will be on the tour bus.
OC Weekly (Dave Good): How much performing are you doing these days?
Hubert Sumlin: I ain't been working too much because, man, I've been under the weather, you know? This breathin' part? Oh, Lord. And this time of year . . . It really gets old, man.
When you played Crossroads earlier this year, you had an oxygen tank onstage.
That's right. I still got it. I use it frequently, you know.
So what's next? Maybe a new record? Your last release was in 2004.
I already made it. I'm just waitin' on the right people to get it out.
What's the title?
Well, now, I won't tell you. [Laughs.]
Okay, then what's the story behind your last one, About Them Shoes?
My father had three whiskey stills. We lived next to the swamp. My father, he'd get on this old mule every day named Pearl and ride into the swamp with two 5-gallon jugs. I followed him. When I got to the swamp and went down in there where he was, he grabbed me, man. I was drunk, smellin' that stuff. That really got me. He said look, “You better not say nothin' about what your old man does. And by the way, how you think you got them shoes?” [Laughs.]
How old were you?
Oh, man, look, I was about 7, 8.
That's about when you got your first guitar, isn't it?
That's right. My mother bought me the guitar. She was the breadwinner. She made $8 a week workin' up at the Greenwood Mortuary.
When you were learning to play, did you ever think the guitar would take you as far away from the farm as it did?
I really didn't, but you know what? When I learned how to play, I really believed I could do anything with my guitar. I could be the best I wanted to be. And then, that's what I did. But it's not over yet. I believe I still got some to learn, sir. I believe that. And I am.
How did you and Wolf hook up?
He heard me play with James Cotton. We grew up together. Cotton had a little band. Man, we was in our teens.
But after Wolf, you took off with Muddy for awhile, right?
Muddy and Wolf was very close. They still was when both of 'em passed, but everybody thought they was enemies, man. Everybody thought they was rivals, you know?
That's what the historians say.
I tried to set these people straight because I was there and I know what was goin' on. Muddy gave Wolf the job at the Zanzibar in Chicago. Then he sent his chauffeur to the Zanzibar after me. He had $300 in $1 bills, and he passed this great big old bunch of money to me. Wolf saw that, and he knew what was goin' on. He said get your stuff off the bandstand now. But don't worry. You comin' back.
And you did, a month later.
I got to the Submarine Club an hour and a half early to set up the instruments, and Muddy was already drunk. Somebody brought him a gallon of white lightnin', and he drank half of that whiskey before he got to the club. There was a public telephone outside, and I got on this telephone and dialed Wolf's number. I told him, “I wanna come back.”
How'd you feel about all the British guys who started playing your licks in the 1960s?
Well, you know, I felt good. I really did. Every one of them guys got a little bit of me. [Laughs.]
Where did your style come from?
I'll tell you what: I prayed. See, Wolf fired me when I first got with him. He tells me, “Look, I cannot do what you doin'. I know how to slow my self up. But you so darn fast with that straight pick. You go home. Goodbye.” When I got fired, I prayed to the good Lord, man, and said, “Look, show me. Give me mine.”
It must have worked. Years later, Rolling Stone would include your name on the list of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
That's too big an honor, in my book. I don't know about things like that.
Did you ever get tired of being Wolf's side man, of him getting all the attention?
People have asked me the same thing. I said to him, “All I wanted was to play behind you. That's all.” And he allowed me to do it.
Big Head Blues Club: 100 Years of Robert Johnson, featuring Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, Cedric Burnside, and Lightnin' Malcolm, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Sat., 8 p.m. $25-$59. All ages.