In Praise of Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011)

In American we pay attention to the stars and the superstars. Less time is spent appreciating the side men, the back up band, or the supporting characters. Which is why the death of Hubert Sumlin less than two months ago went generally unreported and unnoticed.


Who was Hubert Sumlin? Far more people heard Hubert than heard of him. If you ever listen to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, you hear Hubert Sumlin’s exploding Gibson Les Paul Goldtop defining the background. He spent most of his time in the background, you see. When you listen to Eric Clapton or Keith Richard you are hearing Hubert Sumlin. His licks and stylings are found in so many blues-rock performances these days that contemporary rock musicians should wear a Hubert Sumlin patch on their shirts the way NASCAR drivers display their sponsors’ logos.

Like so many blues sidemen, Hubert’s contributions to American music went largely unacknowledged except by true blues afficionados. And like many blues greats, he died quietly. The end of Hubert Sumlin’s road came in Wayne, New Jersey on December 4, 2011. His funeral expenses were paid by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who knew a great one when they heard him play.

Here’s to Hubert Sumlin, who gave dignity and stature to all sidemen, everywhere.

Watch Hubert show you how it is done…

Here’s another link from the American Blues Festival in 1964 where you see how a young Sumlin (who is seen only on the side) keeps the music rolling behind Howlin’ Wolf’s great vocal (Wolf’s backup guitar is unamplified). The definition of a perfect side man:


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