Hubert Sumlin: About Them Shoes

Lou Friedman

He was the secret weapon behind the success of Howlin' Wolf. The secret is out, and he still makes other musicians sound better than they have any right to.

Hubert Sumlin

About Them Shoes

Label: Artemis
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: 2005-01-24
Amazon affiliate

Historically, the blues came at us in two defined waves. The first wave was pure Delta, as legends such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and their ilk first put the blues on the map. Their style was simple, acoustic-based blues. The second wave started with one McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. He started off down Mississippi way, but then migrated north to Chicago, plugged his guitar into an amp, and lo-and-behold -- Chicago blues was born. There were still some Mississippians who learned to amplify, such as B.B. King, but many of the second defined segment came from the upper Midwest: Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf. All of these electric blues artists were large in stature (the rail-thin Hooker excepted), and their size led to their overall (for lack of a better term) bigness in the lexicon of the blues.

Wolf took it a step further. With nearly 300 pounds on his frame, and eyes that could melt a glacier, Wolf gave new meaning to the term "scary". And if that wasn't enough, his stage presence sealed the deal. Ever see a 300-pound man get on his knees and howl? Wolf was crazy, but crazy like a fox -- he knew what he was doing, and that was leaving a legacy for himself.

Wolf's key instrument (aside from his voice) was the harp (harmonica in blues lingo). And he could blow that harp clear across the ocean if he so chose. But what made his most memorable songs ("Smokestack Lightnin'", "Killing Floor", "Moanin' at Midnight", "300 Pounds of Joy", "Wang Dang Doodle")... well, memorable, was the guitar work. The man responsible for said guitar work was Hubert Sumlin. Wolf was responsible for the unmistakable tone that Sumlin puts forth in his guitar work; his suggestion that Sumlin lose the picks he was using and just play with his fingers helped him feel the notes and the overall tone of each song. Sumlin played with Wolf until Burnett's death in 1976, but he's also played with other artists as well: Elmore James, Sunnyland Slim, Buddy Guy, Dixon, Lonnie Brooks, Jimmy Reed…and Muddy (1974's "Muddy and the Wolf").

In April, 2000, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, an unabashed fan and admirer of Sumlin, went to work with him on an album which turned out to be About Them Shoes. But there were several setbacks until the album's 2005 release, most notably label problems and Sumlin's health. In the fall of 2002, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One of his lungs was removed (and there were a few benefit concerts done by fellow musicians to defray medical costs), but Sumlin is cancer-free, and even had the strength to go on stage just three months later and sit in with Richards and the rest of the band on "Let It Bleed" during a Stones concert at Madison Square Garden. So even though it took nearly five years for this album to be released, it's well worth it just to hear Sumlin continue to play the guitar in his trademark style.

There are a wide range of blues and rock guests as guests here, including Richards, Eric Clapton, Bob Margolin (Waters' long time guitarist), James Cotton, Paul Oscher, Levon Helm and David Johansen. All of them sound like they're having a blast, and the net result is one long blues jam session - stands to reason, since once Waters was unleashed from the strains of doing three-minute singles, he rode the pendulum all the way across to the other side, jamming long and hard.

Seven of the 13 songs on About Them Shoes were written by Waters, while five were written by Willie Dixon for Waters. The final song, "This is the End, Little Girl", was written by Sumlin himself. He also laid down lead vocals, and he and Richards worked acoustic guitars to solid and spooky effect. It's one of the best songs on the disc, and proves that Sumlin still has what it takes as he approaches 70 years of living. Richards also stands out on "Still a Fool", where his vocals are actually decipherable!!!! Johansen, who tours with Sumlin here and there and does a solid job live with the Wolf classics, also does a fine job on the slow, slinky "The Same Thing" (Oscher's harp playing is outstanding here), and the rompin' stompin' "Walkin' Thru the Park". Clapton sounds less rote than his usual blues standards work and methinks he's actually enjoying himself on the Dixon-penned Waters standard, "I'm Ready"; even his solo doesn't sound like it's by-the-numbers. However, when Sumlin's short solo immediately follows, there's no question as to who is the blues master here. Clapton always seemed to prefer the slower blues songs, and on "Long Distance Call", he shines because he's got Sumlin (as well as Margolin) pushing him hard. Here again, Oscher's harp work may sound a bit over the top, but in the context of the song, it fits. "Evil" is purely that, with Margolin's slide work and Nathaniel Peterson's Muddy-like vocals giving the song its dirty edge.

This is an overall fun album from one of the most underrated blues guitarists in history. Without Hubert Sumlin, there would be no Howlin' Wolf. (Interestingly, my iPod has Howlin' and Hubert right next to each other - karma.) And even with all these stars peppering About Them Shoes, it's Sumlin's guitar that rises above all else. The man can still play, and he's got a legacy all his own to be proud of. Anybody who loved the Wolf, Muddy, or any of the guests who appear here, picking up this CD is a no-brainer.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.