Raised in Hughes, Arkansas, Sumlin got his first guitar when he was eight years old, but his churchgoing mother admonished him for playing “the devil’s music” (aka “the blues”). But he found out, after sneaking in some blues licks on his guitar in church, which the sounds of the blues could win over even his mother. Sumlin’s innovative musicianship and endearing nature won the hearts of many musicians and admirers in the decades to follow. His boyhood partner, harmonica legend James Cotton, remained a lifelong friend.
As a boy, he met Howlin’ Wolf by sneaking into a performance. Wolf relocated from Memphis to Chicago in 1953, but his longtime guitarist Willie Johnson chose not to join him. In Chicago, Wolf hired the guitarist Jody Williams, but in 1954 he invited Sumlin to move to Chicago to play second guitar in his band. Williams left the band in 1955, leaving Sumlin as the primary guitarist, a position he held almost continuously (except for a brief spell playing with Muddy Waters around 1956) for the remainder of Wolf’s career. According to Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf sent him to a classical guitar instructor at the Chicago Conservatory of Music to learn keyboards and scales. Sumlin played on the album “Howlin’ Wolf” (called the “rocking chair album”, with reference to its cover illustration), which was named the third greatest guitar album of all time by Mojo magazine in 2004. By the dawn of the ’60s, Sumlin’s slashing axe was a prominent component on the great majority of Wolf’s waxings, including “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Shake for Me,” “Hidden Charms” (boasting perhaps Sumlin’s greatest recorded solo), “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” and “Killing Floor.”
From 1954 to 1976 Howlin’ Wolf was as much a father figure to Sumlin as he was his musical employer. In later years Sumlin was adopted by a wide range of musicians, club owners, promoters, and producers who crafted a niche for him as a special guest or featured soloist. Although they had a somewhat tempestuous relationship, Sumlin remained loyal to Wolf until the big man’s 1976 death. But Sumlin cut a handful of solo sessions before that, beginning with a most unusual 1964 date in East Berlin that was produced by Horst Lippmann during a European tour under the auspices of the American Folk Blues Festival (the “behind the Iron Curtain” session also featured pianist Sunnyland Slim and bassist Willie Dixon). In subsequent years Sumlin allowed his vocal talents to shine, recording solo sets that revealed him to be an understated but effective singer, while his guitar continued to communicate most forcefully.
Upon Wolf’s death in 1976, Sumlin continued playing with several other members of Wolf’s band, as the Wolf Gang, until about 1980. He also recorded under his own name, beginning with a session from a tour of Europe with Wolf in 1964. His only 45 rpm single came from an acoustic blues session which also marked the first release on the historic Blue Horizon label in England. In later years he recorded albums for labels in France, Germany, Argentina, and the United States. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are two of the many guitarists who have named Sumlin as a favorite. He shared stages with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Santana, Aerosmith, and many others.
His solo album “About Them Shoes” was released in 2004 by Tone-Cool Records. The guest list on the album included Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, and David Johansen, not to mention a noted bluesman from Sumlin’s own past, harmonica player James Cotton, the old friend and bandmate who first played with Sumlin in West Memphis back in their teenage years of the early ’50s, before Cotton joined up with Muddy Waters and moved to Chicago, paralleling Sumlin’s own journey to the Windy City around the same time.
Sumlin also underwent lung removal surgery in 2004, but he continued performing until just before his death. His last solo album was “Treblemaker” in 2007. His final recording, just days before his death, was tracks for an album by Stephen Dale Petit, “Cracking The Code” (333 Records).
Sumlin was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2008. He was nominated for four Grammy Awards: in 1999 for the album “Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf”, with Henry Gray, Calvin Jones, Sam Lay, and Colin Linden; in 2000 for “Legends”, with Pinetop Perkins; in 2006, for his solo project “About Them Shoes” and in 2010 for his contribution to Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Live! in Chicago”. He won multiple Blues Music Awards. He was a judge for the fifth annual Independent Music Awards, given to support the careers of independent artists. Sumlin lived in Totowa, New Jersey for 10 years before his death.