Hubert Sumlin, the longtime collaborator with Howlin’ Wolf whose unique playing on such songs as “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful” and “Back Door Man” influenced generations of guitarists, died Sunday of heart failure in New Jersey. He was 80.
Sumlin, a mainstay of the Chicago blues scene, was ranked number 43 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He was nominated for four Grammy awards and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2008.
“He always played the right thing at the right time,” Jimmy Page, one of Sumlin’s many admirers, once said. Sumlin, who played his beloved 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar without a pick, was a key inspiration for Keith Richards (who reportedly helped Sumlin with his medical bills in recent years), Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, among others. Inspired by Sumlin’s piercing lead guitar on Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Hendrix sat in with fellow guitar icon Eric Clapton in 1967, the only time the two performed together.
Hubert Sumlin was born in Mississippi, raised in Arkansas and moved to Chicago to play with Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he had a loyal but often contentious relationship. In 1956 Sumlin was hired away for a brief stint with Wolf’s biggest rival, Muddy Waters. After Wolf’s death in 1976, Sumlin continued to perform with the rest of Wolf’s band under the name the Wolf Gang. In addition to his work as a sideman, he released more than a dozen albums under his own name, most recently About Them Shoes (2004), on which Richards was a guest.
The guitarist was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and had a lung removed. In recent years Sumlin continued to perform when his health permitted.
Hubert Sumlin Performs “Killing Floor” at Crossroads Festival in 2004