Hubert Sumlin’s sizzling guitar playing energized many of the classic Chicago blues records of Howlin’ Wolf in the 1950s and ‘60s. His reputation in blues and rock circles propelled him to a celebrated career on his own after Wolf’s death in 1976. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine christened him one of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Sumlin was born on the Pillow plantation in a house that stood just west of this site on November 16, 1931.
Hubert Sumlin grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas hearing his churchgoing mother admonish him for playing “the devil’s music”—the blues. But he found out, after sneaking in some blues licks on his guitar in church, that the sounds of the blues could win over even his mother. Sumlin’s innovative musicianship and endearing nature won the hearts of many musicians and admirers in the decades to follow. His boyhood partner, harmonica legend James Cotton, remained a lifelong friend. From 1954 to 1976 Howlin’ Wolf was as much a father figure to Sumlin as he was his musical employer. In later years Sumlin was adopted by a wide range of musicians, club owners, promoters, and producers who crafted a niche for him as a special guest or featured soloist.
Sumlin started playing guitar in church, but was performing blues with James Cotton by the time the two were in their teens, after the Sumlin family had moved from Greenwood to Hughes, Arkansas. Hubert was awestruck at seeing Howlin’ Wolf rock the house at a local juke joint, and when Wolf later offered him a spot in his band in Chicago, Sumlin bade farewell to Cotton and to his family in Arkansas. Sumlin’s years with Wolf were highlighted by groundbreaking recordings such as “Killing Floor,” “300 Pounds of Joy,” “Smokestack Lightning,” and “Shake For Me” for the Chess label in Chicago. Wolf, a stern disciplinarian, fired his protégé on numerous occasions, only to rehire him every time. At one time Hubert even joined the band of Wolf’s main rival, Muddy Waters. He also played guitar on records by Muddy, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Eddie Taylor, Sunnyland Slim, Carey Bell, Eddie Shaw, James Cotton, and many others.
When Sumlin and Wolf toured Europe on the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival, Hubert made his first recordings under his own name in Germany and England. His only 45 rpm single came from an acoustic blues session which also marked the first release on the historic Blue Horizon label in England. In later years he recorded albums for labels in France, Germany, Argentina, and the United States. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are two of the many guitarists who have named Sumlin as a favorite. He shared stages with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Santana, Aerosmith, and many others. On the award-winning album About Them Shoes Hubert was joined by Clapton, Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and James Cotton. On May 7, 2008, the day after the unveiling of this marker, Sumlin was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame.
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