Alas, just got the news. Here's my account of the one time I managed to see him-- with Willie Smith, also now gone.
“Music heals,” said Hubert Sumlin, between breaths. “It cures you. That’s why I’m here.”
Then he proceeded to cure us all.
Last Wednesday I went back to Jazz Alley where, a year or so ago, I saw Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes Smith” perform. Pinetop was 97 years old at the time, bent and frail, but played and sang beautifully. (Read about it HERE.)
Last night Smith returned with a revamped band and special guest Hubert Sumlin, who brought his own special guest, Jimmy Rogers, Jr.
The night was billed as a tribute to Pinetop Perkins, but I don’t think Perkins was even mentioned. What we heard and saw, instead, was, as Mr. Sumlin pointed out, an example of the healing powers of good music.
Except for drummer “The Amazing” Jimmy Mayes, (who once worked with Jimmy Reed, and started the night with “Bright Lights, Big City,” Smith’s band was different from last year’s version. Maurice John Vaughn played guitar and could have headlined the show himself. He started with a request for “The Thrill is Gone,” and then played his own “Everything I Do (Got to be Funky).” And it was. You can read about him here. http://www.alligator.com/index.cfm?section=artists&artistid=17 Dave Kaye replaced Bob Stroger on bass. I missed Mr. Stroger’s calm smile and dapper outfit, but Kaye did a fine job.
When Willie Smith came on stage after three or four songs by the bandmembers, I was a little worried. He seemed under the weather. He is a master showman, singing, playing his harp, making people smile, but this time, at the start, he seemed to be struggling. (When Pinetop Perkins played last year, Smith was, at 74, the youth of the group.) If Smith was indeed ailing, the music didn’t hurt any for it. He sang his “Born in Arkansas,” and a song from “Joined at the Hip,” his Grammy winning album with Pinetop Perkins.
Then came Mr. Sumlin, tubes in his nostrils, oxygen tanks behind. He sat slumped on a chair. He spoke his short words about healing. He made a few tentative riffs. And then magic.
I’d never had a chance to see him play before except on video. He obviously doesn’t have the strength he once had. But he is wonderful to watch and hear. His fingers flash up and down the frets touching down to bend and slide impossibly, sometimes fingering the strings so quietly and subtly you have to watch his hands to hear, other times scratching and grating the strings to produce rough percussive sounds, usually adding a little flourish by tapping the downstream end of his strings after a lick.
They began with “Sitting on Top of the World,” which Sumlin sang. As he did so, whatever might have ailed Mr. Smith was cured, and the entire band came came alive.
From then on it was impossible to stop them. Mr. Sumlin’s anxious manager sat next to the stage and seemed to try, at least twice, to get him to quit. He kept saying “One more!” They did a song that sounded like Killin‘ Floor, but wasn’t. They did “Big Boss Man.” They did Sonny Boy II’s “Don’t Start me Talkin’.” Most of the time Sumlin seemed perfectly happy to be sitting as another sideman, keeping up a constant rhythm and providing perfect little fills, either loud and raw, or wiggly and refined. Jimmy Rogers, Jr. did beautiful solos that sounded more like a young B. B. King or Buddy Guy than his father. Maurice John Vaughn stuck primarily with rhythm but was happy to solo in his own, unique, finger picking style whenever he got the nod. Mayes kept a close watch on Smith, who led the band with quick nods. And bassist Kaye just seemed overjoyed to be there, surrounded by legends and blues journeymen, healing us all.