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.
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.