Hubert Sumlin at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Tuesday (July 26), 8 pm. $18. 416-763-9139.
When Chicago blues great Hubert Sumlin suffered a heart attack last year, many thought it was all over for Howlin' Wolf's celebrated sideman guitarist.
Sumlin heard similar speculation back in 2002 when he lost a lung to cancer, but none of that stopped him from recording his best album in years, About Them Shoes (Tone-Cool), which features stellar contributions from his fan club members Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, David Johansen and others inspired by Sumlin's fiery play.
At a spry 73 years, the wiry Sumlin sounds ready for just about anything but retirement.
"Oh, I heard all that stuff in Chicago back when the Wolf passed away," cackles the jet-setting Sumlin, relaxing in the tub after a weekend gig in Finland. "They said, 'The Wolf's dead and so is Hubert's career!' So I left Chicago and went to Texas for two years. That's when I first met Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie.
"You heard about my heart attack, didn't you? Well, they fixed me up and I'm feeling stronger than ever. You know, I think I'm singing better than I did 15 years ago. In fact, I know it!"
Listening to his raunchy play on the rough-cut About Them Shoes, it's hard to argue with Sumlin's testimonial of miraculous rejuvenation. What may be more surprising for some is that the material Sumlin has chosen is mostly drawn from the repertoire of Muddy Waters - the arch rival of Sumlin's long-time boss, Howlin' Wolf.
Blues fans will know that there was a short period when Sumlin quit Wolf's band to play guitar for Muddy Waters, so it's all familar material to Sumlin. Even though Wolf was a stern taskmaster, Sumlin says that working for Muddy was no holiday, although the money was better.
"Muddy offered me $40 a night - nearly three times what Wolf was paying me - so naturally I left. And, man, Wolf wasn't happy about that, because Muddy and him were rivals, and you know how that goes.
"They were both always saying that they were the best, but deep down I think both of 'em was just jealous of each other's talent."
Sumlin says there was no such problem with the celebrities joining him for his album sessions. They showed up and put in soulful performances without expecting any financial reward for participating in the small-label project. Call it karmic payback for all the licks lifted over the years.
"We're all just musicians, you know, and that's what musicians do. We help each other the best way we can. I really enjoy playing with Eric and Keith and all those guys. Keith and I have become pretty good friends over the years. We cut the last song on the album, This Is The End, Little Girl, over at his house. He said, 'Let's try some acoustic guitars,' and we recorded it right there."
Since the Rolling Stones will be in town rehearsing for their upcoming tour when Sumlin hits the Silver Dollar Friday night, there are rumours that Richards may stop by to sit in with his old pal. Sumlin refuses to confirm or deny.
"I ain't gonna tell you he's gonna be there," laughs Sumlin, "and I won't say he ain't. But if you come to the show you may be surprised. So get in line and you'll see that I ain't lyin'."