Friday, March 20, 2009

Hubert Sumlin and Rockabilly: A most interesting connection

I remember reading Sam Phillips' obituary a few years back and one the quotes from Sam has always stuck with me. When asked which musician was the most impressive entertainer he had ever had the pleasure to record at Sun records, Sam responded "Howlin Wolf" without hesitation. Wolf was certainly gifted and a most imposing force to watch, but he also had the guitar prowess of Hubert Sumlin at his side, a player whose roots go back to Charlie Patton and is said to have been a major influence on blues and rock guitarists from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Hendrix.

In the last post I briefly examined an association between jazz and western swing guitarists in the 1940's and alluded to how those guitarist left an imprint on rockabilly styles. Obviously, another major guitar style that nourishes rockabilly is blues guitar. And the stereotype of rockabilly is that it is essentially country music that incorporates blues, jump blues and or boogie woogie styles. Certainly this is true, but rarely do we see the immediate connection in specific songs, save the most notable of all, Elvis' cover of Arthur Crudup's "That all right Mama."

Al Casey was a talented Phoenix musician who played several instruments and broke into popular music just as rockabilly was catching fire, in 1955. He appeared as lead guitarist on several high quality rockabilly singles behind singer Sanford Clark starting in 1956. The tune that perfectly captures the the "borrowing" of blues styles by rockabilly players is "The Fool," recorded in 1956, in which Casey's nifty guitar work is, to put it euphemistically, strikingly similar to Hubert Sumlin's signature guitar riffs on Howlin Wolf's famous "Smokestack Lightning." First listen to Wolf's number with Sumlin. On Sanford Clark's "The Fool," a classic rockabilly number recorded the same year, Casey goes straight to Sumlin, but also does some nifty work of his own. Casey also displayed some very adroit guitar work on two other great songs, a shuffle with cheesy vocals Guitars Guitars Guitars, and the another Sunlike rocker with Sanford Clark, "Lonesome for a Letter." Also check out his guitar work on Cat Daddy with Jimmy Johnson on vocals. Nice guitar work on all four, the first shows a direct linkage between blues and rockabilly recordings being made the same year.

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