Sunday, January 1, 2012

Travels With My Camera: Hubert Sumlin

Travels With My Camera: Hubert Sumlin

I first met Hubert Sumlin in July of 2003. It was less than two weeks after photographing Johnny Cash’s final public appearance, and I secured a photo pass to the Gibson Night Of Guitars, an annual event held at the time in conjunction with the NAMM conference in Nashville. The headliner was Les Paul, the legendary guitarist, inventor and namesake of the famed Gibson Les Paul guitar. The rest of the lineup were no slouches, either, and I was thrilled to finally see Sumlin play. Sumlin had been the longtime guitarist for blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, and was the archetype for a million blues and rock guitarists. 

On the day of the show, I drove straight from a video gig in Charlotte, through a nasty rainstorm as I crossed into Tennessee, and finally made it to the Ryman Auditorium during the first set of the show. Later in the evening, I looked around, and I suddenly thought, “Oh, my God! I’m in the Ryman!” The day had been so hectic, the idea that I was also finally attending a show at the Ryman (the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry) had not even dawned on me. 

Les Paul’s set, even at the age of 88, was just fantastic. The introduction to his set was a video of the very first Grand Ole Opry to be broadcast on TV, in 1950. The show’s special guest? Les Paul & Mary Ford. As the video ended, Les Paul walked out on stage, and the place just erupted. Les was one of the sharpest, funniest and dirtiest minds I have ever been around, and the place (like I) loved every minute of it. 

As the second half of the show began to start, Les was sitting on the left side of the stage, listening to introductions, when an older black gentleman in glasses, pinstriped suit and fedora hat, came from behind Les, and gave him a big hug. This was Hubert Sumlin. The two hugged and chatted like the old friends they were. I wish I could tell you that I got a good photo of this, but I so struck by the beauty of the moment, that I just watched it, and let it go. Sumlin did two songs on this night, and the New York Dolls’ David Johansen singing Howlin’ Wolf’s parts. Sumlin nailed his parts, and just plain looked cool doing it.

After the show, I ran into Sumlin and Johansen in the lobby. When I asked Sumlin how he was doing, he said with a smile, “I’m doing all right. I only got one lung these days, but I’m feeling okay.” I had not heard about Sumlin’s recent health issues, and he certainly didn’t show it on that night. I got Sumlin to sign my program, and wished him well. I spent that night sleeping in my car, at a Steak & Shake parking lot, taking in the experience of the whole day.

A couple of years later, Sumlin came through Charlotte as part of a Kenny Wayne Shepherd tour. It was a collective of musicians that had either been influenced by Hendrix, or in Sumlin’s case, had influenced Hendrix himself. I ran into Sumlin in the parking lot. When I started to explain when I had met him, Sumlin said, “Yeah, I remember you! That was a good show.” I don’t know if Sumlin really had remembered me, but his sincerity in saying that meant the world to me. We talked, hugged, and I promised to see him again soon.

Less than a year later, the legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins was supposed to play at the Double Door Inn, but he fell ill, and couldn’t do the show. His replacement? Hubert Sumlin. In the intervening year, Hubert had nearly died from a heart attack, but was back on the road in a matter of months. The show was a lot of fun, with Muddy Waters alumni Willie Smith and Bob Margolin backing Hubert up. After two sets of asking and coaxing, another alumni of the Waters band, Carey Bell, got up and played a few songs. Sumlin smiled and played with everyone that got on stage that night.

What struck me about Sumlin on this night was his playing style. He was definitely a lead guitarist, but not in a conventional sense. The playing seemed to dance around the melody, and his guitar solos were sometimes like watching an improvised high wire act. You weren’t always sure where he was going to land, but it sure was fun to see where Sumlin went. What also stuck out to me was Sumlin’s enthusiasm for everything. For playing, for people, for the whole evening. It dawned on me that Sumlin was in many ways still like a kid, perhaps even that young kid that had snuck into seeing Howlin’ Wolf all those decades before, and got himself a job playing guitar in Wolf's band. I can honestly say that Sumlin was one of the oldest children I have ever met in my life, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can give.

In May of 2007, another alumni of the Waters band, Mac Arnold, put together a festival in Greenville, SC, and got Sumlin and another alum of the Howlin’ Wolf group, Eddie Shaw, to play together for the first time in 30 years. I was gonna be there, no matter what. The only issue? I was already contracted to shoot Merlefest, in Wilkesboro, NC, that same day. So, I shot at Merlefest all day, shot all of the folks I had come to see, and then drove 3 1/2 hours to Greenville. I got there for the last set of the show, with Sumlin and Shaw standing and playing together on blues classics. After the show, I talked my way backstage, and got posed shots of Sumlin and Shaw together, with the last few shots I had left. How did I pull it off? There was no way I wasn’t going to pull it off. That was my mindset. This is history, and I knew that it may never happen again. And sadly, now it never will.

When a great musician like Sumlin dies, the hardest thing that I sometimes have to accept is, I will never see that person onstage again. Forget the photographs, I will never see another Hubert Sumlin show. No more excited anticipation of another show. No more laughs. No more hugs. The finality of it all sinks in, when you realize that your experiences with someone is now in the past, and we, as the survivors, will always have that empty space in our hearts.

I would like to think that Hubert would’ve said it was okay, that he had outlived many of the bluesmen that he had played alongside, and that he had gotten the chance to meet, and influence, fans and musicians the world over. Somewhere, wherever our spirits go when they leave this place, I hope that Hubert has the chance to smile, give some fellow souls some hugs, and play that guitar. The world, on this side, or the other, doesn’t seem right without it. 
-Daniel Coston
Dec. 21, 2011

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