On stage with Hubert Sumlin at the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival, Byron Bay , Australia.
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Hubert Sumlin smiles down on me everyday.
I’ve lived in 8 different houses since I first met Hubert in 2004.
All of them have had a music space of some sort, with guitars and gear spread about. At the centre of this – my special place in any house – is a writing desk where I sit Hubert’s photo, bedecked with Mardi Gras beads, and he beams and shakes his finger at me.
Everybody says it, but Hubert really did have an uncanny knack of making you feel special. When he smiled at you, you really felt smiled at. Few people have the gift of giving something, or someone, their full attention in the manner that Hubert did so effortlessly. His pronouncements were special, even when they apparently consisted of nothing but evocative noises…
‘Mmmmm…hmmmm…ah…ha…yeah...mmmm…that’s what I’m talking about….uh…all right!’
Although we once jammed for the best part of a day – more about that a bit later! – I only played one short tour with Hubert. I did my best to try and make him feel at home. The band sat back and waited in some songs – it was wonderful; the sense of suspension. A few choruses would go round and just when you wondered if he was really going to go for it, he would take soaring musical flight. Sudden swooping licks would fall from his fingers; jangling notes with syncopated phrasing. For many of us guitarists there is a visual correlation between ‘what you see and what you get’. You can sometimes pick up a lick or phrase by watching to see what the other musician is doing on the fret-board – but somehow Hubert’s eccentric finger-style defied such facile interpretation.
When Hubert took the long flight Australia he’d had one lung removed less than a year before. He was frail at times during that visit and couldn’t sing or stand up to play. It was wonderful when I caught up with him the following year. His body had adjusted somewhat to his condition and he looked much stronger. My heart rejoiced to see it.
Somewhere amongst a stack of stored boxes, the legacy of so many house re-locations, I have notes, photos – maybe even a journal - where I recorded some of the stories that Hubert told me. Many of the stories have been oft-told: how he first met The Howlin’ Wolf, how he ‘put down them picks’ and developed his finger-style technique of playing. How he ran off briefly with Muddy Water’s band, how he and Wolf knocked each others teeth out. The excitement of hearing a warped Charlie Patton record, found on the side of the road. His brother, AD, making music by plucking the wire strung on the side of their house.
But there were lots of other stories – about swimming as young boy, getting into difficulties and almost drowning while ‘showing off to them young gals’. Striking it rich at a slot machine (located in the Gents bathroom, no less), scooping the coins off the floor into the legs of his pants, the bottoms tied with his shoe laces.
Playing behind the blues behind The Iron Curtin. Getting robbed at the train station on his arrival in Chicago. Wolf bailing him out of jail, but leaving another other band member behind. ‘I’ll just take my boy!’
A tough life: on the road, playing music and ‘coming up the hard way in the South’.
Some of these tales I heard during a remarkable weekend in August, 2006.
My road manager and dear friend, Suzanne Holmes, and I visited Hubert in Milwaukee. It was one of the rare times he was off the road and relaxing in his own home. The first day we mostly just sat and talked. In the little front room, cluttered with Howlin’ Wolf memorabilia sent by fans, there was a slot machine with a pile of quarters just inside the front door. At one stage the phone rang. After a brief pause, Hubert beamed and exclaimed, ‘Hey, Cotton!’
For someone like me, a blues fan long before I ever dreamed of becoming a blues player, it is hard to describe how astonishing it was to find myself in this situation. Sitting in an old armchair; enveloped by a welcoming domestic atmosphere, while Hubert Sumlin chatted on the phone to James Cotton. Later we went out to the garage and cranked up Hubert’s old Cadillac. Unused to vintage American vehicles, it seemed absolutely huge to me – and it had no mirrors – but, no matter, we were drove to the local store in style!
We ate fried chicken and watermelon around the kitchen table, carefully leaving a respectful space around the Bible that sat near one corner. The Bible belonged to Hubert’s beloved wife Bea. Over the years, it had remained where she last placed it, not long before she succumbed to a heart attack in the next room.
I have scraps of memory about the tiny room where I slept on an old bedstead surrounded by framed family photos and trinkets. We had a Southern style breakfast with biscuits and grits. Was it the first day or the second? I gave Hubert a copy of my recent American release, ‘Lucky 13’, and he excused himself and went outside. Somewhere I have a photo of him sitting on the swinging chair in his yard, where he promptly plugged in a portable CD player and listened to the whole album. Then he looked at me very intently and said, ‘that’s a good album…I’m jealous!’
We went downstairs to the basement, which was partially in disarray. The basement had flooded or leaked at some point, so some things had been rescued and left in random piles. There were still lots of family photos and old show posters, some of them partly water damaged, on the walls along with Hubert’s ‘Keeping the Blues Alive’ Lifetime Achievement Award and a framed photo of Bea looking young and winsome.
It seems amazing, but apart from the two electric guitars that I was traveling with, there was not a single instrument or amp in the house. Despite that, we wanted to jam, so Hubert plugged one guitar into his home stereo system and I played the Telecaster unplugged. The legendary electric guitarist reduced to such semi-acoustic volume and scope! It didn’t matter; we played anyway. While his lead guitar performance on Howlin’ Wolf’s many hits is deservedly revered, I told him that I also loved the ensemble idea behind much of the classic Chicago blues. Intertwining guitar parts like the way he and Jody Williams played together. Hubert seemed very pleased by this and he played a very simple lick on my borrowed Maton guitar. I did my best to play it back to him and he added a variation over my part. We played together like this for a long time, with small variations and adjustments to the basic theme. It was absorbing; fascinating.
Monday morning: Hubert seems so sad that we are leaving…we pack our things and call for a cab. While we are waiting for the taxi to arrive, Hubert wandered off and got some tools and started tinkering in the bathroom. Next thing we know, he is scurrying at top speed out the back… He’d taken the top off one of the taps in the hand basin and it is gushing like a fountain everywhere! I think he thought if he ran and turned it off and didn’t say anything, then maybe he’d get away with it! He came back drenched and sheepish with water splotches all over his glasses while we shrieked and giggled and mopped up the water before it got onto the living room carpet. Suddenly the taxi arrived and it was time to go – maybe it was good that all the silliness broke our sadness.
Back in that little house in Milwaukee, Hubert widened his eyes as if he was willing me to understand what he was about to say. He had gone to Austin, TX, to pay his respects to Clifford Antone. Clifford, always so vital and larger-than-life, had suddenly, incredibly, passed away. Club owner, blues fan and a great benefactor, Clifford had always been supportive of the older blues players, Hubert in particular. Clifford’s sister, Susan, asked Hubert to move Clifford’s truck from where it was parked – and Hubert swore that the engine started before he turned the key. For bluesmen, just like everyone else in this tradition, the spirit is never far away. I am waiting for Hubert to make his own sign to me, as he has before and I am certain he will again.