Simply put, Hubert Sumlin is without peer in the blues guitar world. With a tone and playing style as unique as his own fingerprints, Sumlin laid down inventive guitar parts on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic Chess recordings for over 20 years. Unfortunately, personal and professional issues delayed his solo career after the Wolf’s passing in 1975, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that he released his first solo albums in America. Healing Feeling was his second album, released on Black Top Records in 1990.
With Healing Feeling, it’s not hard to see why these early solo recordings did not raise Sumlin’s profile at the time; on initial listens, few of the songs or performances stand out, and unless you are a Wolf or Sumlin fan, you might be tempted to dismiss it as just another 12-bar blues album. However, on closer listens, there are some “hidden charms”. Sumlin’s guitar cuts through the mix and is always clear, and co-producer/bandleader Ronnie Earl thankfully leaves him lots of room to lay down his spiky lead guitar lines (whilst contributing some fine guitar playing himself). “Down the Dusty Road”, a solo instrumental, really shows how unique and quirky Sumlin’s guitar style is (let’s see someone try to figure out the guitar tabs for this song!). Even when playing the Stratocaster he is pictured with on the cover (a guitar that has been played by countless musicians over the years), his tone still screams “Hubert Sumlin”. The two live performances on the record (“Come Back Little Girl” and “Honey Dumplings”) are especially enjoyable, since they allow Sumlin and the band to loosen up and play more raunchily than in the studio; it’s also a treat to hear him sing on these two tracks, with a rough yet surprisingly assertive voice. Elsewhere on the record, the vocals are handled quite well by James “Thunderbird” Davis and Darrell Nulisch. “I Don’t Want No Woman” is also a fun, up-tempo Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque shuffle. At times, the backing band (Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters) sound more like a competent bar band than a gritty blues combo from the halcyon days of Chess Records (for instance, the wailing saxophone on “Play it Cool” sounds a little too smooth for my liking), but nevertheless, they back Sumlin ably on this set.
No, it will never be a substitute for Wolf’s timeless recordings and I would not consider it essential listening for new blues listeners, but if you take the time and listen closely, Healing Feeling is an entertaining and occasionally rewarding Hubert Sumlin record.