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The Wolf in Winter 

Guitarist Hubert Sumlin remembers getting hired -- and fired -- by Howlin' Wolf.

Hubert Sumlin returns to Jazz Fest as the centerpiece of a Howlin' Wolf tribute. Any tribute to Howlin' Wolf, though, is also a tribute to Sumlin, Wolf's lead guitarist through most of his career -- minus 1956, when Sumlin left Wolf to play with Muddy Waters. Sumlin's just-released Tone Cool album, About Them Shoes, is a star-studded tribute to the year he spent with Waters. Sumlin is currently at work on a Howlin' Wolf tribute album.

Sumlin remembers that Howlin' Wolf could be a hard man. After Muddy Waters briefly hired Sumlin -- offering him triple the money Wolf was paying him -- Wolf had a rivalry with Waters that lasted to his final days. (Sumlin came back to Wolf after experiencing Muddy Waters' grueling tour schedule first hand.)

'You didn't cross Wolf,' Sumlin says. 'He could read you, man. He knows when you right, he knows when you wrong. I'd make a mistake note and he would fire me right there: 'You sit down a while. You fired. You fired.' It happened a couple of times in the same show. I got so used to it, I said to myself, 'I'm gonna show him, man.'

'And he taught me, he showed me everything that he had learned from Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. I didn't want to be making mistakes. So I stopped, and I got that stuff right, man. What I learned with Wolf is not to play too much because I like to hear what's going on between the musicians. I love guitar playing, and I love trying to please people. I know I got what it takes, I had what Wolf wanted and Wolf had what I wanted.'

Before a recording session, Sumlin says, he and Wolf would go to a garage a few weeks ahead of time. 'We would try a tune five or six different ways and we always come back to the first way we played it. We got it right right away. We was just that way.'

Sessions seemed magical, but so did the gigs. "I remember one time we went to Saginaw, Mich., and there was so much snow on the ground the only way we could get there was to drive behind the plows clearing the road," he says. "We started playing and all of a sudden [people] piled in, they danced all the way through that show, and that was one of the best shows we ever put on. I don't know where all them people came from in all that snow."

click to enlarge Hubert Sumlin played guitar with Howlin' Wolf for 22 - years. 'You didn't cross Wolf,' he says. - ANNIE LEIBOVITZ
  • Annie Leibovitz
  • Hubert Sumlin played guitar with Howlin' Wolf for 22 years. 'You didn't cross Wolf,' he says.
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