RIP Howard Tate and Hubert Sumlin

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Howard Tate
  • Howard Tate
Over the weekend the worlds of soul and blues music each suffered a great loss. On Friday brilliant Philadelphia singer Howard Tate died at the age of 72 from complications of multiple myeloma and leukemia, and on Sunday singular guitarist Hubert Sumlin passed away at 80 of reported heart failure in Wayne, New Jersey. Though both made their greatest work decades ago, they performed and recorded for most of their lives.

Tate took a long, not entirely voluntary break from music from the late 70s through his rediscovery in the early aughts, which found his creamy, supple voice undiminished. I got to interview him back in 2003, and I heard him perform on a killer double bill with Bettye LaVette not long after that—he was a marvel. His classic work with producer and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, who died in July, remains his high-water mark.

Hubert Sumlin, left, with Howlin Wolf
  • Hubert Sumlin, left, with Howlin' Wolf
Sumlin, of course, will always be best known as a longtime guitarist for the great Howlin' Wolf, from 1953 until the big man's death in 1976. He performed at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2010 as part of a tribute to Wolf. His playing was like holy scripture to an army of rock guitarists—including geezers like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page—but I still find it depressing that so many people judge Sumlin's value based on his influence on a bunch of rockers who could never match his subtle grace. Dave Hoekstra, who wrote about Sumlin often, has a good obit in today's Sun-Times. Sumlin carried on after his most famous boss died and had a long, successful career in the blues, but as for me, I'll always choose the Howlin' Wolf stuff.

Some of Sumlin's best playing turned up earlier this fall on a fantastic four-CD Howlin' Wolf set called Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 (Hip-O Select)—which also features mind-melting work from his predecessors Willie Johnson and Jody Williams.
There's a mountain of great guitar playing in the set, and it never falls into rote lockstep with the rhythm section—it's always elusive, liquidly filling cracks, racing out ahead of the tempo, making rude exclamations, or answering Wolf. Few of Sumlin's disciples could pull it off like he did.

I've always had a soft spot for Wolf's earliest work, cut in Memphis with Sam Phillips—material that's more raw, loose, and desperate than just about anything he cut—but that's not to detract from his later recordings with Sumlin. In fact, that's Wolf's most famous stuff—you can regrettably hear their iconic version of "Smokestack Lighting" in a recent Viagra commercial. It's also when the band solidified into a well-oiled machine cranking out future classics, many written by Willie Dixon, including "Wang-Dang-Doodle," "Spoonful," and "Back Door Man" (all of which are included in the final session on this essential box set). Sumlin's sound wasn't as raunchy or bloody as Johnson's or Williams's—partly a product of evolving guitar and amplifier technology—but he was an inventive, fluid, and original musician, creating lines and licks that have become nearly as indelible and recognizable as Wolf's voice.

Howard Tate photo: Olivier Ménart

Today's playlist:

Jimmy Smith, Back at the Chicken Shack (Blue Note)
Terry Riley, Cadenza on the Night Plain (Gramavision)
Convergence Quartet, Song/Dance (Clean Feed)
Gilson De Souza, Pôxa (Discobertas/Tapecar)
Frank Carlberg, Tivoli Trio (Red Piano)

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