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The legendary Hubert Sumlin donned a Custom Shop Strat for an all-star jam of “Killing Floor,” in addition to helping close the show with a spectacular rendition of “Red House” with Joe Satriani and Robert Randolph. Sumlin’s Fender Custom Shop ’56 Relic Stratocaster was given to him by Mike Eldred at the 2007 Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival.
It’s difficult to sum up a player like Hubert Sumlin. Rock ’n’ roll as we know it would most certainly sound very different if he hadn’t picked up the guitar back in the ’30s. And not just because Jimi was a huge fan.
Meeting him was fascinating. He was raised in a little town called Hughes in eastern Arkansas— an area that spawned a major music revolution, one that is not simply confined to just the great blues that came from there. As Part of Howlin’ Wolf’s band this man helped change people’s perception of what music could sound like, and we could definitely feel the energy in the room when we were speaking to him. Sumlin is a walking tome of amazing musical history and knowledge, and we just sat back in awe as he recalled fond memories of Hendrix and his very own modest childhood.
“Jimi loved [the famous Howlin’ Wolf tune] ‘Killing Floor,’ and he liked the Wolf,” Sumlin calmly said. He seemed to replay some memory in his mind’s eye for a moment, and then he emphasized the point, “He recorded Killing Floor!” He seemed truly honored that Hendrix had covered the tune—including during a BBC session and at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
Sumlin then recalled the first time he played with Hendrix, during a gig with Howlin’ Wolf in England. “It was at this really nice, big place. He came up through the front, and the crowd just moved for him.” Sumlin’s hands were pressed together, and he spread them wide to illustrate how the crowd parted like the Red Sea when Hendrix walked to the stage. “You could drive a car through it down to the bandstand!” he laughed. The crowd gave the legend a deafening round of applause before he’d played a note. Sumlin watched Jimi go on to play “Killing Floor” with his teeth, and only one thing was running through his mind: “I’m fired. He played it so beautiful, man. I think he played it better than we recorded it.” Hendrix got a 15-minute standing ovation after his set.
Being in the presence of a figure as influential was humbling. It was like listening to a living, breathing part of America’s musical heritage. He shared stories about playing a guitar strung with baling wire and making his brother cry with jealousy because he was so good. He retold road tales and stories of recording with Chuck Berry and the Wolf. But what was most fascinating was his energy. The man is 78 years old and has the drive and passion of a rambunctious teenager. He still lives and breathes guitar like it was the first time he played it. He’s inspiring on and off the stage. And getting to share a few moments of his time to talk about the blues, Arkansas, and Hendrix are moments we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.
Sumlin’s amplifier setup was one of extreme simplicity: a tried-and-true Fender Bassman 4x10 combo mic’d with a Sennheiser e609.