Hubert Sumlin, legendary blues guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, who influenced Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, has died

Hubert Sumlin, a blues guitarist whose soulful licks and crackling solos were featured on scores of hits for singer Howlin’ Wolf during the 1950s and 1960s and who influenced later work by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, died Dec. 4 at a hospital in Wayne, N.J. He was 80.

His agent, Hugh Southard, said Mr. Sumlin had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Sumlin was among the last of a generation of musicians who helped modernize the blues with the electric guitar.

Although his was not a well-known name, Mr. Sumlin was considered a blues legend whose virtuosic guitar-playing inspired the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 43rd on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. (Mr. Sumlin placed above Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and rock-and-roll pioneer Buddy Holly.)

Born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi, Mr. Sumlin played his first tunes on a length of hay-baling wire tied tautly between two protruding nails on the side of his home.


Legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin died Dec. 4 at age 80. (Photo by Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images/Courtesy of the Artist)

It was on that “diddley bow” that Mr. Sumlin began to develop the warped and quivering style that became his signature.

“Other guitarists are inspired by him,” Muddy Waters band member Bob Margolin once said, “but nobody sounds like him.”

Mr. Sumlin’s mother later bought her son a real guitar with a week’s salary from her job at a funeral parlor.

Mr. Sumlin was about 10 when he sneaked off to a local juke joint to listen to one of his idols, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett.

Denied entry to the bar, Mr. Sumlin piled several wooden Coca-Cola crates up to an exhaust-fan window so that he could climb up andpeek inside. Teetering at the top, he crashed through the opening and landed on the stage in front of Howlin’ Wolf, a gargantuan man with a booming voice.

The singer was impressed with Mr. Sumlin’s dedication to music. He ordered that a chair be brought onstage for the youngster.

At the end of his performance, the singer drove Mr. Sumlin home. In an interview with Worcester (Mass.) magazine, Mr. Sumlin once recalled Howlin’ Wolf’s conversation with his mother:

“He says, ‘Looka here. Don’t whup ’im. One day, Mrs. Sumlin, I sure would like him to play with me. He’s something else. He’s gonna be a musician and he’s gonna be a good one. Yes, m’am.’ ”

Mr. Sumlin — who did not escape his mother’s punishment — kept in touch with Howlin’ Wolf and joined his band in Chicago in the early 1950s. He established himself as a standout guitarist and creative partner. Mr. Sumlin’s licks on“Killing Floor,” “The Red Rooster” and “Smokestack Lightning” are considered blues classics.

Despite his successful work with the singer, Mr. Sumlin said he was fired by Howlin’ Wolf more than 100 times.

At one point, Howlin’ Wolf dismissed Mr. Sumlin in front of an audience of 700. The singer later said Mr. Sumlin had been playing too loudly and was interfering with his vocals.

Mr. Sumlin went home and began playing without a pick, flicking his guitar’s strings with his fingers.

“I could feel the soul and the pain,” he told Guitar Player magazine in 2005. “I could feel everything. And that made me better.”

He soon returned to Howlin’ Wolf’s band and played with the group until the singer died in 1976.

After decades in the shadow of Howlin’ Wolf’s spotlight, Mr. Sumlin struggled to forge a career on his own. He released a number of solo albums and received several Grammy award nominations in the 1990s.

In the mid-2000s, Mr. Sumlin released the album “About Them Shoes,” which was produced by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

In an interview with Guitar Player, Mr. Sumlin explained the album’s title. His father subsidized his family’s meager income with a whiskey still hidden in a swamp. One day, Mr. Sumlin stumbled onto his father’s underground distilling operation.

When he asked about the equipment’s purpose, his father told him:

“How do you think you got them socks on? How do you think you got them shoes?”

Hubert Charles Sumlin was born Nov. 16, 1931, in Greenwood, Miss., and grew up in Hughes, Ark. He was one of 13 children.

When he was a teenager, his guitar skills landed him performances in nearby juke joints. He eventually formed a group with blues harmonica player James Cotton.

Mr. Sumlin was married multiple times. A complete list of his survivors could not be determined.

Mr. Sumlin had a close but rocky relationship with Howlin’ Wolf, who stood more than 6-foot-6 and weighed as much as 300 pounds.

“We had just two fights in all those years,” Mr. Sumlin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He knocked my teeth out and I knocked his out. . . . The day after the fight, he went and had the teeth fixed with gold. He looked better than before I hit him.” 

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.