On Friday night (24 February 2012) at the Apollo Theater in New York City, a who's who of blues guitarists and musicians gathered to honor the memory of one of the legends, Hubert Sumlin. The evening was initially planned as a celebration of Hubert's 80th Birthday, but when he passed in December, it became a tribute to him. The evening was a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America, which supports 6,000 musician emergency cases each year. A fund has now been established in Hubert's name which will help jazz and blues legends in crisis. It was Hubert's wish that no musician need to go through what he did - die in poverty due to lack of health care.
At 8PM, the curtain rose to reveal Hubert's tobacco sunburst Stratocaster and trademark hat center stage, with19 guitar amplifiers lined up behind it with two roses of risers for the house band. Above the stage, hung massive portraits of Hubert. Blues legend James Cotton walked out with Eric Clapton to begin the evening with a stunning "Key To The Highway" sitting on folding chairs at the foot of the stage. Eric's biting acoustic work was punctuated by James' harp fills. Over the next four and half-hours, there would be 25 different acts playing tribute. Although some guitarists performed with the house band only, there were also unique pairings of guitarists much like one would see at Eric's Crossroads Guitar Festivals. The show was divided into two halves with a 20 minute intermission.
The house band featured Steve Jordan and Jim Keltner, bassist Willie Weeks and pianist Ivan Neville. Jordan also served as musical director. Although the stars of guitar were there, Hubert's and Howlin' Wolf's former bandmates were also there: harmonic player James Cotton, saxophonist Eddie Shaw and guitarist Jody Williams. Almost all recalled Hubert's gentle nature, the joy he exuded when playing live and his passion for the guitar. His longtime manager and caretaker, Toni Ann Mamary, tearfully told the audience that Hubert had said, "I’m gonna be there. I don’t care if I play – I’m going to be there." She added, "Can you feel him?"
Highlights of the first half were undoubtedly Jimmie Vaughan, Todd Park Mohr, David Johannsen. As Jimmie began an electric solo version of "Six Strings Down", a hush fell over the Apollo - even the bartenders on all levels and security took notice. Accompanied only by his stratocaster, the lyricis were rewritten to reflect on Hubert's long career and with a nod to the Chicago Greats who called him home - Albert, Muddy, Lightnin' and Freddie. Todd Park Mohr (Big Head Todd & The Monsters) performed a specially composed song in Hubert's memory which he also sang at the funeral service. David Johannsen (New York Dolls), who often performed with Hubert, was joined by Jimmy Vivino (who also joined Hubert at gigs) for a brilliant take on "Evil".
Also in the first half, Kenny Wayne Shepard performed with legend Jody Williams for a biting "Lucky Lou", Warren Haynes stepped out with Billy Gibbons, Lonnie Brooks and son for Sweet Home Chicago which got the audience on its feet, and a surprise appearance by Elvis Costello. Elvis told the audience how Hubert joined him on stage in Montclair, New Jersey in September for what turned out to be Hubert's final public appearance.
Early in the second half, Doyle Bramhall II teamed up with Derek Trucks for a performance the audience enjoyed. What really brought them to their feet was the next guest, Susan Tedeschi, who's guitar solos were top-notch. This part of the show also featured Robert Randolph, Buddy Guy and Buddy's 12-year old protege Quinn Sullivan on "Hoochie Coochie Man".
It was getting close to midnight when Eric stepped out on stage for the second time to join Gary Clark Jr. for a song. They were then joined by Jody Williams for a brilliant "Forty Four" which brought back fond memories of the blues tour years. Keith Richards then stepped on stage sans guitar for a smokey "Going Down Slow". Keith stood side stage leaing on the piano alternately watching Barrelhouse Chuck's finger work and Eric's verse and solo. The last time these two legends worked together was a few miles south in Central Park in September 1999 at Sheryl Crow's "Central Park In Blue". Eric left the stage for Keith's performance of "Little Red Rooster" on acoustic 12-string slide. Strapping on a Gibson, Keith was joined by James Cotton and Eric for "Spoonful" to close the show. Keith once again handled the vocals.
Now well past midnight, all of the guitarists assembled on stage for "Wang Dang Doodle" with vocals handled primarily by Shemekia Copeland. The show closed with "Smokestack Lightning", which musical director Steve Jordan descibed as "that song you hear in the Viagra commercials". Throughout this closing number, Eric's biting fills rang above the other massed guitars. It was definitely a night for the history books. Unfortunately for blues fans worldwide, it was not filmed and recorded for official release.
For more information on the Jazz Foundation of America, visit jazzfoundation.org
Be sure to check out the next issue of Where's Eric! Magazine for even more news and exclusive photos from this historic event. Complete set list pending - it will be published in the tour archive section when available. Were you there? Send your reviews and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on the tour page!