Never underestimate the impact that the blues has had on our musical history; greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf paved the way for rock n’ roll as we know it. As ground-breaking as these visionaries were, their respective sounds were shaped and supported by prolific sidemen, musicians who were an integral part of history in the making, yet rarely recognized for their contributions.
Filmmakers Jasin Cadic and Scott Rosenbaum have brought three of these storied characters from the shadows into the spotlight in their documentary, “Sidemen: Long Road To Glory”, featuring the stories of piano player extraordinaire Pinetop Perkins, legendary drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitar boss Hubert Sumlin, who played in Wolf’s and Muddy’s bands. The documentary tells each man’s story, all three from humble beginnings in the sharecropping South in the early 20th century, where their passion for music was born in the hardship and dust of the cotton fields, to their migration to the Chicago blues scene which lead to their tenure as band members. With concert footage, old photographs and recordings, along with commentary from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gregg Allman, Johnny Winter, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi, and anecdotes from the sidemen themselves, the filmmakers beautifully reveal chapter after chapter of Perkins’, Smith’s, and Sumlin’s stories.
The impact of what they accomplished and who they influenced is mind-boggling, a significant fact given that these men have received very little recognition in the industry—after Muddy and Wolf both died, Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin were mostly unable to find work elsewhere, falling into addiction, poverty, and being subjected to abuse. As time progressed, and interest in American roots music and nostalgia became popularized by up-and-coming bands all over the world, the sidemen began to be noticed— eventually Perkins and Smith won Grammys for the Best Traditional Blues album, “Joined At The Hip”, in 2011, yet Sumlin, whose goal was to be inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, never realized his dream. All three men died within eight months of each other in 2011, but their legacies live on; the documentary ends with interviews from kids who attend workshops held in Clarksdale, Mississippi by the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, an organization dedicated to encouraging and supporting youth who wish to pursue careers in music, and a new chapter of the blues story unfolds.