Monday, June 28, 2004

Greenwood native Sumlin receives blues award

Greenwood mayor Harry L. Smith recently presented Greenwood native and blues guitar legend Hubert Sumlin the city's first Heart of the Blues Award.

The presentation took place June 10, the first day of the 21st annual Chicago Blues Festival, and honored Sumlin for his lifetime contributions to the blues.

Sumlin, best known for his tenure playing guitar for Howlin' Wolf, has also shared the stage with such artists as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters.

He was even listed at No. 65 in Rolling Stone's Sept. 18, 2003, special edition, "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," which claimed his work on Wolf's classics "inspired Keith Richards and an entire generation of British bluesman."

Wesley Smith, son of Mayor Smith and membership chairman for The Blues Foundation in Memphis, came up with the idea of honoring Sumlin.

"It's overdue," Wesley Smith said. "A lot of these guys are recognized around the world, so it's important for their hometowns to embrace them."

At Smith's suggestion, and with the help of his father, the Greenwood City Council passed a resolution on June 1 that honored Sumlin with the Heart of the Blues Award.

"I think anytime we have a recognized blues star who has roots here, it's a good idea for us to honor them," Mayor Smith said.

Wesley Smith, who was already scheduled to be in Chicago for the festival, planned the presentation after learning his father also would be in Chicago that weekend for a conference.

"When that opportunity came, I suggested that it might be a good idea for the mayor of Greenwood to present Hubert with this honor," Wesley Smith said. "Hubert belongs to us. He's one of our guys."

Wesley Smith said Sumlin "smiled ear to ear" when he realized he was being recognized by the city of Greenwood.

"He seemed really touched," Wesley Smith added.

Mayor Smith said Sumlin almost got teary-eyed during the presentation.

"He was just totally surprised," Mayor Smith said.

Sumlin was born in Greenwood in 1931, and was raised in Arkansas. He moved to Chicago during his childhood, but his love of the blues he heard down South sparked a creative fire that would ultimately turn him into one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time.

"He has really signature licks that he created," Wesley Smith, also a musician, said. "His playing is really distinctive and creative. You can see how he's influenced today's music.

"The translation of that is that you can hear how many of today's musicians have stolen Hubert's licks and claimed them as their own."

Although Sumlin never reached the level of commercial fame so often associated with success in the music business, the praise he has received from other musicians is evidence of his influence.

Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix was once quoted as calling Sumlin his "favorite guitarist."

Wesley Smith said his first meeting with Sumlin in 2002 revealed an artist proud of his heritage and "wistful about his hometown."

"In music circles, Hubert's a legend," Wesley Smith said. "I think it meant a lot to him to be honored by the place where he was born."

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