This DVD presents the film Hubert Sumlin - Living The Blues. The film traces the career of Hubert Sumlin, the legendary blues guitarist, who played for 25 years with the Howlin’ Wolf Band. His distinctive sound shaped the songs made famous by the Wolf including Smokestack Lightnin’, Killing Floor, and Sitting on Top of the World. After the death of Wolf in 1976, Hubert had to re-invent himself as an instrumentalist and as a bandleader. The film includes interviews with Hubert as well as with James Cotton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and is highlighted by archival black and white documentary footage from the 1964 folk festival tour of Europe which included Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, Sugar Pie Desanto, as well as Hubert and the Wolf.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, Hubert Sumlin is a self taught guitarist whose musical roots originate in the gospel music of the Sanctified Baptist church, where he first played guitar. Listening to late night radio, he became aware of James Cotton, whose weekly radio show was heard in the area. When guitarist Pat Hare was unable to perform one night, Cotton approached the youthful Sumlin to sit in for him. “He got him a pencil”, says James Cotton in the film, “and wrapped it with a wire on the guitar to act like a capo, he turned to me and said “I’m ready now. We went on and he hit it note for note. I couldn’t tell that it wasn’t Pat Hare sitting there. After we played together for a while the Wolf sent for Hubert to come to Chicago. I told him he should go, ‘cause he’d make more money with Wolf than he would with me.”
Rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan, in a 1985 interview from the film, says “Hubert’s the heaviest, most original guitar player I’ve ever heard...and that’s the truth!” Speaking candidly before a Boston concert, Stevie Ray credits Hubert as a major influence on his style. “Hubert’s one of the guys who sat down and taught me stuff,” agrees Ronnie Earl.
From the Homespun Tapes instructional DVD The Guitar Of Hubert Sumlin several excerpts where Hubert talks and demonstrates his approach to playing the blues. He is joined by a stellar band that includes Jimmy Vivino, Levon Helm, Michael Merritt and Buster Poindexter. On the DVD you will find a PDF file of an article Hubert wrote for Living Blues magazine "My Years With Wolf."
Running Time: 87 minutes
Review: The story usually goes: practice, practice, practice, mediocrity. Hubert Sumlin's version: "Hell, I don't know, but I woke up one morning and was playing my @## off." Immortality then promptly followed, granted when the hand of fate- in the oversized form of Howlin' Wolf's paw-tapped Sumlin's guitar to get its literal licks in on history. For over two decades, the hot-handed innovationist locked down everything built between "Back Door Man" through "Wang Dang Doodle." Then, in 1976, Wolf died. As the 1980s got rolling, so did Hubert, busily rebooting his career from sideman to frontman. And so too were Jim Kent and Sumner Burgwyn's cameras rolling, painting Sumlin's ever-smiling portrait through their 1986 Living The Blues film. That entailed meeting him down into the cottony flatland of his Mississippi birthplace along with Othar Turner's File & Drum Band and Jessie Mae Hemphill at the Delta Blues Festival, and grizzled guitarist Son Thomas outside his dilapidated shotgun shack. Then trailing him throughout Chicago
Retracing footsteps back to the Zanzibar Club. Spying him with Wolf, Sonny Boy, Sunnyland, and Sleepy John in silent, sepia motion on footage from 1964's European Folk Festival tour. Speaking with his first boss (James Cotton), along with one of his worshippers (Stevie Ray Vaughan). And being at all the jams: jamming at a guitar shop and in a studio. In a living room with Roomful-era Ronnie Earl. Onstage with Eddie Taylor at The Delta Fish Market. With a makeshift band cobbling together Jimmy Vivino, Levon Helm, and former New York Doll David Johansen (thanks to bonus material from a recent instructional guitar session that sheds pointers on how to bare-hand "Killing Floor"). Had that song's instantaneously recognizable crosscutting riff been his only invention, Sumlin's story would still make required watching. – Dennis Rozanski/BluesRag
Review: This is a re-edit of a 1985 film focused on Howling Wolfs lead guitarist. Don Kent and Sumner Burgwyn were roaming the south with a film camera looking for bluesmen, haunting clubs, concerts and filming people playing on porches. One night Sumlin came along and sat down with his guitar. They filmed him talking and playing riffs and decided to focus the film on him. They wound up shooting over several months, in motel rooms, onstage and during performances at a radio station. Sumlin was Wolf's guitarist for 25 years, playing on such iconic classics as Smokestack Lightning, Killing Floor and Sitting On Top Of The World, adding his quirky stinging guitar riffs and taking the tunes to new heights.“We were like father and son,” Sumlin says.
Indeed Sumlin first heard Wolf by sneaking into a juke joint as a 12 year old, falling from a window onto the stage. Wolf sat him down where he could keep an eye on him, and drove him home after the gig, telling his Mom that he was just there for the music. When Sumlin started playing guitar he used a pick, but wasn't getting very far. Wolf told him to throw it away and use his fingers-and soon Hubert was burning some solid lines on both Wolf's gigs and records. The two had a family relationship for sure-as Hubert grins during his interviews you can see the gap where Wolf knocked out a couple of his front teeth after Hubert shot his mouth off after a gig.
Hubert plays with enthusiasm, grinning broadly as he lays down another weird little riff-this is a man who obviously delights in what he does. He plays here as much as he talks-usually in solo settings, but there are several shots of him with a band, and a section where he jams with Ronnie Earl, who backs Hubert on rhythm guitar. In a short interview James Cotton talks about hiring Hubert for his down home band, before Wolf called him to come north and join him in Chicago. In another brief interview, Stevie Ray Vaughan talks about what an inspiration Hubert is. The original film focused on Sumlin for half its length, then intercut footage the filmmakers had shot at the Delta Festival (notable now for its mostly black audience-today it would be mostly white). Son Thomas, a delta bluesman who played at the Reagan white house (he shows a photo of him and Nancy) is seen playing on the porch of a shotgun shack. There is also some 20 minutes of a set at a Chicago open air fish market, where Sumlin jams with Eddie Taylor, Sam Lay and white harpman James Hickey, a bouncer at a blues club who went on to cut a vanity album with Sumlin as a sideman. In the reedit, these sections are placed at the end of the bio footage as extras; it makes for a better flow and more cohesive portrait of Sumlin.
The bonus tracks include some fifteen minutes of footage from another DVD, the instructional THE GUITAR OF HUBERT SUMLIN. Here- Hubert is fronting a band with Jimmy Vivino (longtime bluesfan and Conan O'Brien bandman), and Levon Helm (The Band) with David Johansen (NY Dolls) contributing place- keeping vocals on the tunes Killing Floor and Smokestack Lightning. First Vivino talks to Hubert about the tunes, section by section, then Sumlin demonstrates what he's doing. Finally there's a full length performance of the entire tune.
Sumlin, who would be 80 in November, continues to work the road, doing festivals and club gigs, including several local appearances backed by the The Butanes. However, he missed a recently scheduled Blues Party gig in Wisconsin – he was in the hospital for congestive heart failure. Next time he comes your way, you best plan on catching him, carpe diem. Altogether the DVD runs for 1:27, it's an interesting time spent with a truly unique player. – Tony Glover