The Knockturnal

If you’re a fan of modern music, you’re a fan of the blues.

You may not know it yourself, but trust me. Pretty much all modern music (yes, even the likes of Katy Perry) owe a debt to folks like Lead Belly and Son House. It’s called “roots music” for a reason, after all. I’d go even further and call it “patient zero.”

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory details the lives and art of three musicians who helped build the blues and define its sound: guitarist Hubert Sumlin (longtime accompanist of Howlin’ Wolf), drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and pianist Pinetop Perkins (both associated with Muddy Waters, later forming their own band, the Legendary Blues Band). Sumlin, Smith, and Perkins went through most of their careers as “sidemen” — the session players and band members supporting the main act in the studio.

If you’re already a student of the blues, this documentary might not teach you anything you didn’t already know about the lives of these men. We’re given the story in a pretty straightforward manner (narrated by Marc Maron), and it’s an excellent synopsis of three very storied careers. But as excellent as the storytelling is, to view Sidemen as just a “lives and times”-type film is to diminish its true importance as a cultural artifact.

The “lives and times” of Hubert Sumlin, Big Eyes Smith, and Pinetop Perkins are told through a combination of archival footage, Marc Maron’s aforementioned narration, and a treasure trove of interviews from the sidemen themselves and a cavalcade of some of the most notable living musicians: Johnny Winter, Gregg Allman, Shemeika Copeland, and many, many others. In many cases, these musicians worked with the sidemen in question, playing with them in different acts over the years. (Johnny Winter was a Muddy Waters collaborator, and produced his seminal album Hard Again). The breadth and depth of history and experience doled out over the film’s short runtime is astonishing. What’s even more astonishing is that these stories were captured on film while those that lived them were still around to spin their yarn (Sumlin, Smith, Perkins, Winter, and Allman have all since passed).

To be a sideman was to be under appreciated. Even the greatest of sidemen never became household names, often barely managing to make a living wage. Big Eyes and Perkins, in the last year of their lives, won their only Grammy. Hubert Sumlin was as responsible for the sound of rock-and-roll (and consequently modern music) as was Chuck Berry, yet has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the best scenes in the film shows Sumlin visiting his handprints on the Guitar Center Rockwalk, ecstatic at having been so honored but still hoping for a spot in Cleveland (preferably, he says, while he’s still living).

The story Sidemen tells is not an unfamiliar one; it is, in fact, the entire history of American music in microcosm. The foundation of American music, like so much else, was built on the backs of slaves, whose work songs and spirituals became the blues, which transformed into rock-and-roll with the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley modifying and electrifying the riffs. But at nearly every stage of development, the music was co-opted in some form or another, and attribution and accreditation became fuzzy in the public eye.

If you ask someone on the street, “Who wrote ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’,” the answer you’ll most likely receive is Elvis Presley and Bill Haley (for the record, it’s Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Jesse Stone, aka Charles Calhoun, respectively). To be clear, I have nothing against either Elvis or Bill Haley, both of whom respected the source material and retained its original energy and, in many cases, sensuality. (Pat Boone is another story, though.) But the majority of (white) audiences in America remained largely ignorant of the men and women who pioneered the cultural backbone of twentieth-centre music. Hubert Sumlin, Big Eyes Smith, and Pinetop Perkins were three of these men. Without them, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters would have lost so much of their signature sounds that influenced the major rockers to come.

Sidemen is an invaluable cultural artifact. It lets Sumlin, Smith, and Perkins speak to us, to give us their histories firsthand. And where they are humble and occasionally downplay their contributions to music history, their friends and collaborators step in to make the case for them.

I can only hope that Sidemen: Long Road to Glory finds a large audience. For one, it’s a well-crafted documentary. For two, Director Scott D. Rosenbaum has given us a gift with his little film, an indispensable cultural document that finally brings attention to some of the most important figures in American music (even though they themselves don’t always see it that way). Even if you don’t care about the blues, the lives of these sidemen were incredible, match only by their mastery of their craft. It’s about time they took center stage.

The film hits theaters on August 18, 2017.