Howlin’ The Blues With Sumlin

Howlin’ the Blues With Hubert Sumlin

It’s pretty hard to get New Yorkers excited, at least from what I’ve seen, but the sidewalk in front of the Iridium was a twitter with whispers, (and with Twitter too).

Picture almost everyone outside buzzing to one another or, with phone gripped tightly in hand, leaning in slightly with enthusiasm:

“I’m at the Irriduim! listening to Hugh Sumlin! My God this is AMAZING!”

When the Levon Helm Band’s Brian Mitchell stepped out, the excitement heightened:

“That’s Brian Mitchell!” “Look! Look!” excited whisper… excited whisper… excited whisper…

Sumlin was inside, unaware of the hullabaloo. Mitchell, caught up by the crowd, took it all in stride. He smiled warmly and stopped to speak for a few minutes with anyone who wanted to, (everyone). They both struck me, as Levon Helm himself later would, as very gracious, kind people; genuine people. Truly down to earth. A profound understanding of the Blues seems to make you that way.

Sumlin was the guitar player most associated with Howlin’ Wolf’s unique sound. For those of you not familiar with Wolf, he was an extremely influential Blues guitarist whose songs includeSmokestack Lightnin’ and others that have since become standards. Rolling Stone named him as one of their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. (The Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival is held each year in West Point, Mississippi.)

Wolf’s voice was broad and booming, with subtle nuances. Sumlin played tightly and circularly. This provided a contrast that brought an uncanny result. His playing, when I heard him, was absolutely mesmerizing. Though Wolf worked with many guitarists over the years, including Buddy Guy, Sumlin was the most constant.

It had been a long days journey into the deep blue night. My comment about going to do just about anything in New York was that you never reached your destination till 500 stairs, 6 subway trains and 500 dollars later. A long but happy journey. With me were visual artist and model Katelan Foisy (http://www.katelanfoisy.com) and photographer Kate Black (http://www.kateblack.com). (Katelan painted me as a Southern Gothic ‘Faust’ for the first Mojo Sideshow and is featuring me as the Judgment card in her tarot in progress.) We had spent the late afternoon sketching a surreal tableaux at the Bowery Poetry Club.

The very cool venue was home that evening to Dr. Sketchy’s tribute to multi-disciplinary artist Cynthia Von Buhler. It was hosted by the astonishing Molly Crabapple, (who was also part of the Sideshow). Cynthia, along with many, many other accomplishments, was part of the Johnny Cash Project.

That day, she was just beginning to talk about her immersive production, Speakeasy Dollhouse. Speakeasy, recently featured on Oddities, was created by Von Buhler to explore the murder of her grandfather. (http://www.speakeasydollhouse.com) Katelan plays a principal role in the production.

The Von Buhler Sketchy’s featured one of Cynthia’s paintings, (which plays a violin piece written by her husband, musician Russell Farhang). Models dressed like the figures in the painting moved lithely from pose to pose. Farhang spun a spell with his violin stage left. Cynthia flitted to and fro, covered in fake creepy crawlies and handing out curious vials. She then performed magic tricks with a lovely birdcage, a-flutter with white wings.

Katelan and I had been having a series of adventures for several weeks. After the Sketchy’s session, we were invited to Cynthia’s room at the Chelsea Hotel. The Pigeons munched birdseed on the mantle while we drank champagne, ate donuts and were otherwise fabulously entertained.

We were, it was said, the room that had once been the scene of the notorious
death of Nancy Spungen. The actual room where she died had been expanded, so we were in two rooms made into one, but it was as close to being there as could be gotten. I was hosting séances and ghost tours at the time and we all wanted to have one at the Chelsea, but they closed a few months after I left. It is, in retrospect, a trip tinged with sadness because it was filled with last glimpses of icons that would quickly blink away before I had time to return.

Nonetheless, back to the purple-blue time before I knew that, to New York in the Spring with night air full of B7s and soft, tinkly minor chords… Katelan, Kate (http://www.kateblack.com) and I, a tad reluctantly but also excitedly, left the party early. As we left, the staff, aglow all night with curiosity about our of our admittedly enchanting group, asked us excitedly to confirm that we were models. We nodded and laughed, on our way to see Mr. Sumlin in what would be one of his last performances.

Sumlin and Mitchell played together for over twenty years. Recently, they were part of the Howlin’ Wolf Tribute Band along with Jimmy Vivino, David Johansen and Levon Helm. Soon after that, Vivino suggested him for the Midnight Rambles, which at the time were just beginning.

When I asked him about Sumlin’s music, Mr. Mitchell said:

“He and Levon shared the quality of having their own, unmistakable sound on their instrument; no one else sound like they did. Whatever recording they were on, you could immediately tell it was them.

“Hubert had a crazy vibrato on the guitar that had a very vocal quality to it. He didn’t play much slide but he created that sort of sound. He also developed a one chord vamp sound on “Smokstack Lightning” or Wang Dang Doodle” that had a very hypnotic and hallucinatory effect. Jimi Hendrix was influenced by this approach and used it to great effect on Voodoo Chile.

“Levon had a very syncopated approach to the drums that he got from Memphis & New Orleans R&B music. An example of that is how he came up with the beat for “Cripple Creek”. Originally it was kind of a two beat county-ish feel. He changed it to what they call cut time, which allowed him more room to add some funky syncopation and also left more room to hear the lyrics.

“He also brought a very emotional way of playing the drums. A critic early on in his career once said, “He’s the only drummer in rock music that can make you cry by the way he plays.”

Having had a lung removed in 2004, Sumlin relied on an oxygen machine to aid with breathing during his performance. Nonetheless, he played with more, spirit and soul than any guitarist I believe I’ve ever seen. Additionally, he did far more with one lung than most manage with two. It was remarkable.

Sumlin met Howlin’ Wolf, (Chester Arthur Burnett) by sneaking into one of his shows. He then played with him from 1954 until the Bluesman’s death in 1976. After that, he continued with other former band members and also launched a solo career. He was included in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, was nominated for four Grammy Awards. He won multiple Blues Music Awards.

The show that night was, I suppose appropriately for the man best known for performing tunes like Evil and I Ain’t Superstitious, near-supernatural. Sumlin’s presence filled the room, which was tinged with soft tones. The air was fiercely alive with his guitar. Katelan, Kate and I were enthralled. I’d even go so far as to say we were enraptured points; sinking into the notes of, unquestionably, one of the best Blues musicians of all time.

Like Mr. Helm, Sumlin was raised in Arkansas; (though he moved to Chicago soon after Wolf did, at his invitation). He died not too long after I saw him in 2011. He died, in fact, on my son’s birthday, December 4. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who were heavily influenced by him, paid his funeral costs.

~ Lonesome Liz

Photo 1 – Hubert Sumlin and Levon Helm, Photo courtesy of Brian Mitchell

Photo 2 – Lonesome Liz as ‘Faust’ , Photo by Katelan Foisy

Photo 3 – ‘Show and Telly’ Photo by Cynthia Von Buhler

Photo 4 – Lonesome Liz and Katelan Foisy at the Chelsea Hotel, Photo by Molly Crabapple

Photo 5 – Brian Mitchell on Keys, Photo courtesy of Lonesome Liz

Photo 6 – The Hubert Sumlin Band, Photo courtesy of Brian Mitchell

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Lonesome Liz is an Outlaw Country and Blues singer/songwriter, (http://lonesomelizmusic.blogspot.com). She lives in a corner of Near-Nashville Kentucky she’s dubbed “The Land of the Outlaw Amish.” Always creating in one form or another, Lonesome Liz is multidisciplinary Artist and Mulitmedia Producer.  Add Lonesome Liz (Elizabeth Bissette) on Facebook.