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No Rest for a Blues Legend, Hubert Sumlin or His Guitar

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Hubert Sumlin Hubert Sumlin took up the guitar at age 6. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1998, 1999 and 2005. He has to travel with an oxygen tank, but he is still working, and plans to win the award one day.

KEITH RICHARDS may be the guitarist who helps Hubert Sumlin with his medical bills, but when Mr. Sumlin, 79, himself a renowned blues guitarist, talks about the younger musicians he admires, Eric Clapton's name comes up most often.

“He's a guy, let me tell you—Eric Clapton's a guy who can really play the blues," Mr. Sumlin said recently in an interview at the home he shares here with his manager, Toni Ann Mamary, and her elderly parents. “I feel it when he plays. He's got soul, and a lot of it." The oxygen tank that accompanies Mr. Sumlin everywhere these days, even onstage, whirred softly on the carpeted floor beside him, and a pair of tubes attached to it were hitched up to his nose. (He had surgery in 2002 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after learning he had lung cancer.) But that did not distract him from animatedly relating a string of tales dating back to the 1930s.

Born in 1931 in Greenwood, Miss., Mr. Sumlin, who took up the guitar at age 6, first met his own musical mentor, Howlin' Wolf, at a roadhouse nearby.

“I got next to the roadhouse, and I stacked me some Coca-Cola crates up" next to a window, Mr. Sumlin said. “I had to have been maybe 11, 12. Somebody snatched them crates," and he tumbled into the roadhouse, where Howlin' Wolf, whose real name was Chester Burnett, invited him to sit onstage, he said.

Years later, Mr. Burnett asked Mr. Sumlin to move to Chicago and play guitar in his band. The relationship lasted 27 years, until Mr. Burnett's death in 1976.

Since then, rock legends, including Mr. Richards and Mr. Clapton, have cited Mr. Sumlin as an influence, and in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed him at No. 65 on its list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Mr. Richards and the others “can run a ring around me as guitar players, but they respect me," Mr. Sumlin said. “The Stones—they're nice people. They came to Wolf's house because, you know, they heard us doing 'Little Red Rooster,' “ which they subsequently recorded, Mr. Sumlin said.

These days, Mr. Sumlin plays as often as Ms. Mamary and his doctors will allow. Next Saturday, he will headline Centenary Stage Company's Mini-Blues Festival at Centenary College in Hackettstown. He frequently performs with David Johansen and began a cross-country tour in January with Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

Mr. Richards, besides pitching in with medical costs, contributed to Mr. Sumlin's solo album, “About Them Shoes," released in 2005 and nominated for a Grammy Award for best traditional blues album. Mr. Clapton and Levon Helm were also among the players.

Despite Mr. Sumlin's way with a narrative, ticket-holders to the Centenary Stage show should not expect to be regaled with stories from the stage. In recent years, playing for an audience has become its own sort of therapy, he said. The intensity of the playing leaves little room for dialogue.

But when he is not onstage, he said, “I love to talk."


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