Friday, December 23, 2011

Hubert Sumlin: Incurable Blues

INCURABLE BLUES: The Troubles and Triumph of Blues Legend HUBERT SUMLIN by Will Romano (Backbeat Books - $17.95)
For those who don’t know, Hubert Sumlin played guitar and right-hand-man to the legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and played on nearly all of Wolf’s classic recordings as well as being a stalwart of his live band from the mid-50s right up to Wolf’s death in 1976, since which he has recorded and performed sporadically under his own name and with hosts of ad-hoc blues bands in Austin, Chicago etc. 

But if you’re reading this then you probably know who Hubert Sumlin is, and if you’re tempted to buy a book about him then the chances are pretty good that you are a guitar player. Will Romano, author of this volume, writes regularly for magazines such as Guitar Player, Bass Player and Modern Drummer, so it’s particularly perplexing that, time and time again throughout this otherwise laudably thorough study, he shrinks from grasping the nettle and actually detailing what it is that Sumlin is doing on classic solos such as “300 Pounds Of Joy” or “Louise” or so many others. It really isn’t enough to just pile on the purple prose when describing playing which obviously Romano feels very emotionally involved with. As a guitarist myself, I was hoping for a slightly more musicological approach that would tell me in specific detail what was going on records I’ve known and loved for many years. This doesn’t have to get prohibitively technical or academic, it just needs to be a bit more specific. The trouble with piles of superlatives and poetic adjectives when used to describe music is that after awhile they all become meaningless and you forget what it is that you’re actually reading about. This is a common problem with blues books written by enthusiasts who are basically trying to proselytize. Romano obviously feels that Sumlin has been somewhat unfairly overlooked and this book definitely has the flavour of a labour of love about it. Romano loves Sumlin deeply, the man and his music, and the book is at its best when he is describing small anecdotes – either from personal recollection or from his many interviewees – which offer a touching and genuinely engaging portrait of an obviously complex and unique individual.

The biography aspect is all present and correct: as a reference book this is a valuable footnote to any reasonably thorough history of the blues – and certainly a pleasure for any Howlin’ Wolf fan. The stories of Wolf’s relationship with Sumlin are the stuff of blues legend and they are well told here. The problem is that Sumlin, however talented, is essentially a sideman who has been thrust most unwillingly into the spotlight since Wolf’s death.  He has been poorly served by a blues community who, with the best will in the world, seem to be incapable of getting the best out of him and onto a record that is sympathetically produced and properly distributed. It may be that his notoriously mercurial approach to his art just doesn’t translate into a modern context. More likely, however, is the inescapable conclusion that Hubert Sumlin has never succeeded in emerging from behind the enormous shadow of the mighty Wolf. There is one particularly moving account of a recent festival appearance where Sumlin froze in mid-performance and had to leave the stage. “I got too emotional. I was overcome”, he tells Romano after the gig. “I saw Wolf’s face up there, man. I saw him. He was looking at me and I just couldn’t go on. I couldn’t do it.” This single anecdote, coming as it does right at the beginning of the book, provides the underlying motif for the whole story. To be fair to Sumlin, Wolf was such an enormous presence, so overwhelming a performer and artist, that no-one could have done better under the circumstances. Since Wolf’s death, Sumlin’s career has been one long diminuendo – even as hordes of guitar players, old and young, black and white, have struggled to figure out just what it was that made his contributions so undeniably riveting and unique. 

On a more prosaic level, I would have enjoyed a compare and contrast of Sumlin’s style with some of his contemporaries: Albert King, for example, or Freddie King, or Albert Collins. But I don’t want to gripe too much at such a worthy and worthwhile project as this. If you’re a blues buff, buy it by all means – the stories are worth the price of admission, and the discography is very useful – but don’t expect to discover any of Hubert’s secrets. He’ll be taking them with him when he goes.



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