Hubert Sumlin and Sam Burckhardt
"Zora Young's Sunnyland
By Bob Putignano
Not often enough does an extremely professional and superbly produced Blues disc reach my desk, but producer Sam Burckhardt has expertly assembled and arranged a product in Zora Young's Sunnyland that works to near perfection from end to end. Why? The band is outstanding with top notch Chicago veterans like Hubert Sumlin, Zora Young, Sam Burckhardt, Steve Freund, Chuck Parrish, Barrelhouse Chuck, Bob Stroger, Kenny Smith and Steve Horne.
As Hubert lives nearby to WFDU, the station I work for, I took it upon myself to reunite the always gentlemanly Mr. Sumlin with Mr. Burckhardt to talk about their magnificent Windy City sessions.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Hubert, before I introduce Sam, it's always great to have you back here, and I think you happily hold the all-time record for the most visits on my radio show.
Hubert Sumlin: I believe so.
BW: And I personally want to thank you for that.
HS: I've enjoyed every second of it, Bob.
BW: Now on the phone we have Sam Burckhardt calling in from the Windy City.
Sam Burckhardt: I'm really good, Bob. Thanks for having me.
HS: Hi, Sam!
BW: I know you all had a connection with Sunnyland Slim, but coming up with a record like this is a whole other thing.
SB: At the Chicago Blues Festival 2007 we celebrated Sunnyland's one-hundredth birthday, and both Hubert and myself happened to be part of the festival, with Steve Freund, Bob Stroger,and others all there, I thought it was an golden opportunity to realize the project that I wanted to do for a long time. We had to do this with some other bandleader (Zora Young) as Hubert was still under contract at that time. Zora also comes with a direct connection to Sunnyland. As a matter of fact, everyone on this new recording had a direct relationship with Sunnyland other than the drummer Kenny Smith.
BW: It's a great cast of musicians, and I am sorry, Sam, I was not previously aware of your abilities, but I have to say that I am very much pleasantly surprised.
SB: Stroger, Freund, and myself were a part of Sunnyland's band for many years. I came to Chicago from Switzerland in '82, and I met Sunnyland in 1975 in Switzerland where we became friends. I met Hubert overseas, too. Remember that, Hubert?
HS: I can't forget that.
BW: How long do you two know each other?
SB: About thirty-five years.
HS: Sounds about right, Sam.
SB: Hubert came over with the American Folk Roots Fest, with Sunnyland, Eddie Taylor, and Carey Bell.
HS: It was a wonderful band.
SB: Odie Payne was playing the drums, and Bob Stroger was the bassist.
BW: And this new disc really came out great. Hats off to you. I also look forward to more production work from you.
SB: Thanks, I have a very simple philosophy: good music is a lot like good food. So if you have good ingredients, then it's easy to make a tasty meal. Plus, as a horn player, one of the things I enjoy doing is putting together a horn section. I wrote the parts for the horns after we recorded the tracks live in the studio. I also felt that if you are a good working band, you'll be a good band in the studio.
BW: Which is typical of a lot of jazz bands who gig and than go into the studio.
SB: Plus doing the horns afterwards, I can listen to exactly what's there, then craft the charts to what is exactly what went down. So it's a lot like a puzzle. And, in the case of
Hubert, I think he's one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
BW: That's right!
HS: Whoa, Sam.
SB: I really mean that, Hubert. You don't follow anyone's path. You play your own music because every time it comes out different, which is so beautiful. So, as for me as a horn player, every piece you play creates a response from the horns.
HS: Sam, I wanted to ask you on those horns parts who's all that's blowing with you?
SB: Chuck Parris on trumpet who played lead trumpet with Ray Charles.
HS: Nice music in these horns, Sam, and I like Zora, too. You know she really let her hair down there! I really felt her. I felt the soul that she has. I think we all did.
SB: That's right, Hubert, some people can have a specific groove, but what's beautiful about her is she can do a funky number, then go to a stone Blues, and she can also take it forward and do something else which was great for us as a band as we can dig into different approaches to the music.
HS: You really did a good mix, as I see you did a lot of work here, Sam. I'm glad you got these horns on here. Yeah, man!
SB: The other horn players are Steve Horne who's a trombone player, we worked on a record together that I did where the leader was Chicago-based Franz Jackson which was the last recording Franz did. He was ninety-five at that time. Franz worked with everybody: Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster.
BW: Wow, these are heavy names, wow.
SB: Yep. Back to the record, these musicians are all great, so I wrote the horn charts at home and went in the studio and recorded them.
BW: This must have taken you a while to put all of this together. How long did it take to make this Sunnyland disc?
SB: You are right. This took longer than usual. The basic recording was done in June of 2007. Then let it sit for a bit, and went in and finished it for a 2009 release.
BW: My Blueswax editor wanted me to ask what it was like working with Steve Wagner who is well known for his work at Delmark Records?
SB: Steve is very easy to work with. He's a great guy who knows what he's doing. I did ask someone else to do the mix because the whole mixing part to me is a bit of a mystery, especially to me as a musician. I'm used to going into a great sounding studio, do what you need to do, and we're done. These days the studios have no room sound, so then you have to create that sound in the mix, which is a fine art all and within itself.
BW: Interesting. Back to the disc, you had mentioned funk and one of the funkiest tunes on here is "Till The Fat Lady Sings."
HS: That's it!
BW: Hubert, you sound so funky! Sam, tell the story about Airway Records.
SB: Sunnyland was a very independent soul and was the first Blues artist to record for the Chess Brothers when the label was still called Aristocrat. Before that session he asked a very young Muddy Waters to come and sing on the session with him. Of course, the label wanted to know if Muddy could sing, and Sunnyland said, "Yes, like a bird." But that was the last time Sunnyland recorded for Chess. I don't know why he never stayed on with Chess, but I think he was not happy with what he was getting for what he did. So he felt he should work with a smaller label where the return was more direct. Around 1973 he decided to start his own label and called it Airway Records. I'm not sure why he called it Airway, but my hypohtesis is that he did have a little briefcase, and the brand of the case was Airway. So I suspect that when he went to the lawyer's office to form the label he had the briefcase with him, and when asked he looked down at the case and said Airway. When he passed away in '95, I asked his widow if I could continue the label because he and I had one production together that was recorded when we first met in '75 called Live in Europe which was the start of Airway Records on CD. The next recording was under my own name.
BW: What was the name of your recording?
SB: Chicago Swing from '99, which has all original compositions.
HS: Sam was just like I was with Wolf, as Sunnyland treated Sam like he was his son. Sunnyland told me about Sam, and said, "Wait a minute, you've got to see what I got, and here comes Sam, man." Sunnyland was crazy about Sam.
BW: Neat story, Hubert. And, Sam, it must be nice to make the payback to Sunnyland.
SB: That's exactly right, Bob. I think it reminds all of us that we are little links in a big chain. Some people are bigger links, and some are smaller but, without the links, the chain would break.
BW: And we have to keep those link sizes in perspective and leave egos at the door.
SB: In all my twenty-seven years of playing professionally, I would say that most of the people I've worked with have been nice and make music for the right reasons. I some ways musicians are healers of the soul.
HS: I think you are right, Sam.
SB: We come to play music and out of what we do comes magic. But that magic only happens when you are one hundred percent behind it. Whether you have two people or two hundred thousand people listening to you, that commitment to the music is the most precious thing you can have.
HS: Ah, nice, Sam.
BW: Hubert would you like to add anything to what Sam just said?
HS: Sam said it all, he covered it so nice.
BW: I want to thank both of you for sharing your thoughts and music with us. For more info about the Sunnyland recording and Sam Burckhardt, be sure to check www.AirwayRecords.com And to find out more about Hubert go to www.hubertsumlinblues.com. Any last thoughts before I let you guys go?
HS: Sam, I think I'll be home in a couple of weeks, and if I am, I am going to let you know. I miss the people and your family that I got to meet over there in Switzerland.
SB: Hubert, we've got to get together and also travel some more, too. And from the bottom of my heart, it's been such a great pleasure and so much love to work with you. I hope that this was not the last time.
HS: We are going to do it again, Sam!
BW: I hope you guys do it again.
HS: We are, we are.
BW: Sam, I don't think you'd have to make to many changes to make a follow up record.
SB: I agree. We have a basic concept. We don't want to push it and just let the music come out.
HS: That's right Sam. Amen.
BW: Best wishes with the release, Sam, and thanks again to you, Hubert.
Bob Putignano is a contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at: email@example.com web site: www.SoundsofBlue.com
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com