This is just a short list of notable blues players who appeared in the indie documentary, Sidemen: Long Road To Glory, sharing stories about three of America’s most influential musicians.
Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Hubert Sumlin should be among the most well-known names in contemporary music. Yet, very few people have ever heard of them or know where they fit into the lineage of music history — specifically the blues and rock and roll. Drawing a wide comparison, Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin are to the blues and rock what Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are to the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music eras, albeit under extremely different circumstances.
Filmmakers Jasin Cadic and Scott Rosenbaum weave together The Sidemen’s journey in 77 minutes of interviews, music, film footage, and vintage photos. Each man was born into poverty under the austere Jim Crow laws of the deep south in the early part of the 20th century. The desolate and sometimes brutal circumstances they faced growing up drew them to music at a young age, until the point they found their way north to the Chicago music scene.
At different times each of them fell in with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters who are recognized as the pillars of Chicago’s blues movement, and who effectively forged the union between the blues and rock. While Perkins, Smith and Sumlin had the benefit of a job as a sideman, Wolf and Waters were the rich beneficiaries of authentic southern roots in the soulful piano of Perkins, Smith’s percussive grooves, and Sumlin’s rawly original electric guitar.
These guys were the trifecta, the authentic secret recipe to a strange brew.
What they contributed had once been a segregated sound out of the black juke joints. It was a blend of itinerant spirituals with traditional African American music that became the foundation rebellious white rockers like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin adopted early in their careers.
The profound impact The Sidemen had on contemporary music is epic. So epic, one should contemplate what the music of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or anyone else in contemporary music might be like without them. Yet, their work went largely unnoticed, and unrewarded. Everyone else took the credit and the money.
The lifestyle of a sideman traditionally is living from gig to gig. Perkins, Smith and Sumlin had disappointments and successes along the way, but they also suffered through bouts of illness, depression, and abandonment especially after Wolf and Waters died. Even though collectively they were the dream team of Chicago blues players no one sought them out to keep the thunder rolling.
Consequently, Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin would never enjoy the security their contributions to a multi-billion dollar industry should have provided. In 2011, within nine months, each of them passed away. Perkins died in March, Smith died in September, and Sumlin passed away in December.
Among other accolades over the years, Perkins and Smith won GRAMMYs for the Best Traditional Blues album, “Joined At The Hip,” just prior to their deaths. Though he’d won many awards and had four GRAMMY nominations to his credit, Sumlin did not live to realize his dream being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Anyone who plays the blues or any variation of rock should see this film, especially emerging artists who need a deep sense of music’s evolution. If you’re serious about your craft and your memory of music only dates back to the 1960s or somewhat later — go see this film. Every university that schedules contemporary music history classes, as well as blues societies around the world should seek out this documentary to understand the long road the blues has traveled along the lines of race, cultural diversity, and the incredibly powerful position it holds in our culture.
As was boldly stated in the film, “The blues for [them] was life. Life! And it made ’em happy.”