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VOL. 126 | NO. 246 | Monday, December 19, 2011

Sumlin: Remembering a Memphis Musical Great

By Mitch McCracken

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Recent headlines shouted “Chicago Blues Great Hubert Sumlin Dies at 80.” The stories released about the death of Hubert Sumlin were almost correct, but the headlines should have read “Memphis Guitar Great Hubert Sumlin Dies.”

“Hubert Sumlin was a Memphis blues artist whose music became known as the Chicago blues.”

–Dale Franklin
CEO of KWEM Radio, the Memphis station where Sumlin got his start

Hubert Sumlin, who died of heart failure on Dec. 4, was best known as the guitarist for blues great Howlin’ Wolf and voted as one of the Top 100 Greatest Guitar players in the world by Rolling Stone magazine.

“Hubert Sumlin was a Memphis blues artist whose music became known as the Chicago Blues,” says Dale Franklin, CEO of KWEM Radio, where Sumlin got his start.

In 1953 Hubert was on Memphis radio with James Cotton and Junior Parker, who both recorded for legendary Sam Phillips at Sun Records that year. James Cotton, in addition to being a star and recording artist in his own right, became world renowned as the harmonica player for Muddy Waters. Junior Parker, meanwhile, cut a hit record at Sun called “Mystery Train,” better known as “See See Rider” when Elvis Presley recorded the song a year later.

Howlin’ Wolf also had a hit record, “How Many More Years b/w Moanin’ at Midnight” recorded by Sam Phillips and released on the Chess record label. Chess Records was based in Chicago and that opened the door for the move from Memphis to Chicago for Howlin’ Wolf.

Mark Hoffman, author of the book, “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” said “Wolf met Hubert while playing one night just across the river in West Memphis, Ark. Later that year he asked Hubert to come to Chicago and play for his band.”

In West Memphis in those days it was like Las Vegas. There was gambling and music in the juke joints from 8th Street to 16th Street where Howlin’ Wolf lived. Wolf had a 30-minute radio show on KWEM and gave half of it to Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. At that time KWEM had offices in Memphis on Flicker Street and West Memphis on Broadway. They got so good in their 15 minutes they started getting offers from the clubs where Wolf was playing. Sumlin said he didn’t get mad but he did take his 15 minutes back.

Wolf heard something in Sumlin that was unique.

“He’s the one that shaped that Howlin’ Wolf sound,” Chicago blues guitarist Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater once said. “On tunes like ‘Shake for Me’ and ‘Smokestack Lightning’, that was the Howlin’ Wolf sound, and Hubert’s guitar made it.”

Everybody wanted that Hubert Sumlin sound. He influenced the sound of such artists as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

Eric Clapton and Keith Richards played on Sumlin’s Grammy nominated album “About Them Shoes” in 2005. In 2010 he played with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan at the Crossroads Guitar Festival at Toyota Park in Chicago.

Yes, Hubert Sumlin was a great blues guitarist that spent many years playing with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in Chicago. But it all got started in Memphis. KWEM not only gave Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton and Junior Parker their start but also B.B. King, Albert King, Johnny Cash, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and a young Elvis Presley. KWEM gave all of them their first on-air exposure, all performing live on the air.

Memphis is rich in music history and has influenced every genre from blues to rockabilly to rock ‘n’ roll to country and rhythm and blues. The city did it with KWEM, Beale Street, American Studios, Sun Records, Stax Records, Ardent Studios, Hi Records and much more.

Hubert Sumlin was known for supporting the Memphis music scene and appearing yearly at Memphis music festivals and venues, including Memphis in May. Coming to Memphis was never just another tour stop. To Hubert, it was coming home.

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