An all-time great sideman, Hubert Sumlin was still a guy who stood off to the side of the main guy, which means his stinging, filthy guitar parts will always be better known than his name. Sumlin died Sunday of heart failure in a Wayne, N.J. hospital room. He was 80. But what he laid down on so many great Howlin' Wolf songs from the '50s and '60s—including "Spoonful," "Smokestack Lightning," "Back Door Man" and others—remain as dark, mysterious, sexy, and pulsing with vitality as any riffs in the history of blues and rock.
Sumlin joined Wolf's band in 1953, when he was making sides for Sun Records, and stayed by Wolf's side until his death in 1976. Born in Greenwood, Miss. on Nov. 16, 1931, Sumlin started playing guitar when he was only six years old. Initially hired as the second guitarist in Wolf's band, he took over lead playing duties in 1955, and remained a fixture on Wolf's records and tours for the next 20 years. (He also played briefly with Muddy Waters in 1956.)
Some of Sumlin's most celebrated playing can be heard on 1962's Howlin' Wolf, commonly known as "The Rockin' Chair Album," which collected singles released the previous two years on the great Chicago blues label Chess. The record stands up on its own because of Willie Dixon's incredible (and highly sexualized) songwriting and the unsettling volume and power of Wolf's vocals, but the playing on Howlin' Wolf stands apart for the influence it would have on a generation of rock bands. Songs like "The Red Rooster," "Spoonful," and "Shake For Me" carry the seeds that would later flower on albums by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin. Sumlin received barely a fraction of the hero worship heaped on the guitarists who played on those records, but his playing clearly foreshadows what's to come in the decade ahead.
After Wolf died, Sumlin continued to play with other members of the singer's backing band, as well as play and record under his own name. In 2004, he released his last solo effort, About Them Shoes; that same year, he also underwent surgery to remove one of his lungs. But his health issues didn't prevent Sumlin from touring, as he stayed on the road until right before he died.