Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin dies

December 6, 2011

Michell Eloy

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(Flickr/Aaron Warren)
Hubert Sumlin performing at Crossroads Festival 2010.

Blues lovers are mourning the death of Howlin' Wolf lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who died on Sunday in New Jersey from heart failure. He was 80 years old.

Sumlin was born in Greenwood Mississippi in 1931, later moving to Arkansas as young boy. He came to Chicago in the mid 1950's at the invite of singer Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, as part of the great northern migration of African American blues artists.

Sumlin played with Wolf's band from 1953 until the singer died in 1976. Despite a contentious relationship with Wolf, the duo were a match made in Delta Blues Heaven.

"Sumlin's guitar playing complimented Wolf's sound in some ways better than the earlier guys did," said Brett Bonner, editor at Living Blues Magazine. "Wolf was the aggressor, and Sumlin kind of balanced things out."

Bonner said Sumlin's sparse, sharp style of play - backing legends like Wolf and, for a time, Muddy Waters - helped define the sound of Chicago blues, what Bonner called a rough, muscular guitar and harmonica-driven sound. Sumlin was best known for his spots on Howlin' Wolf songs like "Killing Floor" and "Wang Dang Doodle".

As a solo artist, Sumlin was nominated for three Grammy awards, but he never won. In 2008, Sumlin was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.