Tell Automatic Slim: Never imitated, always in style, the pioneer blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin visits the Asbury Park boardwalk for a special show this Thursday night.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit June 30, 2009)
There’s an oft-told tale that appears on the official website of Hubert Sumlin, the 77 year old blues guitar innovator whose most enduring legacy remains his long association with the late great Chester Burnette, aka The Howlin’ Wolf. It involves a ten year old blues fan named Hubert, a sneaky trip over to the local juke joint to peer through the window at Mr. Wolf’s set, an impromptu stage debut (through the window and onto the bandstand) and the start of an association that would last from the mid 1950s through to the Wolf’s passing in 1976. There would almost be something kind of Little Rascals about it, were it not for the fact that this cute story would eventually result in such chillingly razor-edged recordings as “Killing Floor,” and “Evil is Goin’ On.”
Having relocated to Chicago from the Memphis area (”I was the only one ever drove out of the South like a gentleman”), Wolf and his young, finger-technique guitar lieutenant were just hitting their stride as the early days of what would become the British Invasion dawned; influencing an eager young generation of UK rockers and fostering the wisdom that a world without Wolf would likely be a world without theStones, Clapton and Page.
Check out some of the period footage of Wolf and Sumlin in action, drawn in many cases from European TV shows. On performances like “Shake It For Me” and “Meet Me In The Bottom” (love those bags of potato chips clipped to the wall behind Wolf) the singer and the guitarist do nothing less than establish the template for Mick and Keith and Tyler and Perry and Jon and Richie and hundreds of other classic combos.
To those of us for whom the blues pretty much begins and ends with these guys, the Wolf voice — a voice that even his own mother likened to the pipes of the devil himself — is a wondrous thing; a sound that roars up like a giant monster and curls at the edges into a sneer that makes each line a steel fish-hook that’ll rip out your lower lip if you get too close.
And there’s Sumlin’s guitar; choppy, primitive, jagged shards of blues that have more to do with The Stooges than the studied, museum-piece sounds dealt out by a lot of festival players. You hear broken glass, kudzu, streetcars flattening fifty-cent pieces, corpses in a mangrove swamp.
Hubert Sumlin is still gigging around out there; undaunted by age or major surgery and still getting phone calls from people like Clapton, David Johansen, Levon Helmand Keith Richards — all of whom guested on his most recent album, About Them Shoes. On Thursday, July 2, the guitarist and his band (including Kenny “Stringbean” Sorensen, Dan Mulvey and the Rollins Band’s Sim Cain!) visit Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk in a 9pm show for which reservations should be made at (732)455-3275. Red Bank oRBit spoke to the old master about memorably bad gigs, good friends, heavy weather and dressing for the occasion. Read on.
RED BANK ORBIT: Before we get into it I have to tell you about the first and the last time I saw you play the town of Red Bank, New Jersey. It was one of their Jazz & Blues Festivals that they do every June, and as usual it got rained out. You were supposed to headline the night with David Johansen and Levon Helm and the other guys you were touring with at the time.
Well, the whole night in the park was canceled, so somebody in your group got the idea to go up to a restaurant nearby (the now-defunct Olde Union House) and set up a little jam session — there were people, myself included, pressed up against the window taking it all in, and you got about one and a half songs into your set when the fire department busts in with full gear on, and they shut you down and sent everybody out into the night. You probably don’t even remember that one, it happened so fast…
Oh, I sure do remember that one! Heh heh heh! I never will forget it — that was really somethin’. But you know, that was just a pea in a bush, is what that was!
So that one doesn’t even rank with your worst gigs ever?
Worst gigs ever, well, let me see — you know, anytime you’re playin’ outdoors you’re takin’ a chance! I played Kentucky just last week and it rained real hard, we was up under a tent, feelin’ bad for all these people out there standin’ in water. And years ago in Milwaukee, at the ballpark, you know, County Stadium? There was lightnin’ hittin’ the ground, thunder, water up on the bandstand with all of the wires. We likely coulda got electrocuted!
But the worst gig, that turned out to be a good gig, was in Saginaw, Michigan. It was freezin’ cold, and Wolf was so high that night. We couldn’t even see the highway for the trucks and the weather, we didn’t even see the light poles or the signs…
Well, we got to the job, an hour before we were gonna go on, and we found the place locked up. These two old ladies come and opened the place up — Wolf says to one of ‘em, ‘Miss, you sure you want us to play?’, but the ladies, they look at Wolf and say, ‘You the Wolf? You gonna do the show. Ain’t nothin’ to worry about; you all are gonna get paid.’
We had our drums and our big bass on top of the car, tied down with ropes, and it was so cold, we had to burn the ropes off the roof! Then when we got everything inside we had to let our stuff thaw out. And meanwhile there’s still nobody in the joint but the two old ladies!
So we say, ‘hey boys, let’s start to play,’ and just like that, the place starts fillin’ up with people. I never seen anything like it — it’s like they were waitin’ out in the woods, and when they heard the music they all come magically showin’ up!
You’re traveling a little more in style these days, right? Still covering lots of ground; racking up the mileage…
Oh, sure, I been to Australia, Asia, all kinds of places I never thought I’d see in my day. I think I’ll be goin’ to Israel for the first time pretty soon! Old as I am, you know, there’s still new places to go, new things to see…
And I have to mention that you’re always dressed to the nines to play; always looking sharp with those suits and hats and silk ties…
Well, thank you for sayin’ that, you know I come from a time when people would expect you to dress up. These guys would demand nice suits and tuxedoes. If you didn’t look professional you never came back there to play.
I went to see my boy Eric Clapton the other night, over at Madison Square Garden, you know, with Winwood? And you know how it is, these guys are wearin’ t-shirts and blue jeans. I told him he must be gettin’ old, ’cause all his nice clothes don’t fit him no more! (laughs)
You’ve been friends with guys like Clapton and Winwood and Keith Richards for many years, and even though they come from a totally different background than you, did you see a little of yourself in them when they were learning from you, just like you learned from the Wolf and some of the other older guys?
Sure, sure…you know, Wolf, he learned me what this was all about, he showed me things about Charley Patton and other guys. He said be for real — you gotta play with some soul, and man, we lived this stuff, you know? Every number Wolf ever recorded, this guy told it like it was.
Well, I think the entire population of blues musicians on the Jersey Shore is not gonna want to miss the chance to see you do your stuff on Thursday.
I’m lookin’ forward to this show. You tell ‘em I’m comin’ to town — with a vengeance!