2016: The Year in Charts

SXSW 2016: 'Sidemen' Documentary Explores the Lives of Backing Bluesmen

Courtesy Red Hawk Films
Pinetop Perkins in Sidemen - Long Road to Glory.

"The blues had a baby and they named it rock n' roll," Muddy Waters once sang, both boasting his influence and blessing his musical offspring. And without a doubt he was right; the British Invasion that swept the music world in the 1960s and 1970s (and the American bands that followed) owed a massive debt to Waters and Howlin' Wolf, two iconic bluesmen who brought the Delta to Chicago and turned the genre into an electric tour-de-force. But unlike a blues pioneer like Robert Johnson, Waters and Wolf weren't going at it solo -- both were backed by musicians whose names have been neglected even as their impact continues to be felt throughout blues and rock music today. 

It's those backing musicians -- specifically Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Waters' pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith -- that are the focus of the new documentary Sidemen: Long Road to Glory, which premiered this year at SXSW Film Festival. The 80-minute documentary features extensive interviews with the three musicians, as well as conversations with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Gregg Allman, Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Perry and plenty more, documenting the lives and careers of Sumlin, Perkins and Smith, whose work by nature meant they were seldom acknowledged for their contributions to music history.

Originally conceived as a Last Waltz-style concert documentary, director/screenwriter Scott Rosenbaum and co-screenwriter/producer Jasin Cadic were forced to re-tool their narrative when all three musicians, first Perkins, then Smith, then Sumlin, all died within an eight-month period in 2011. "We really had to dig in to the back stories of their lives, which were incredible," Rosenbaum told Billboard last week about the making of the film, which took seven years to complete. "It was definitely an intention to capture who they were, the legacies they represented and the music we all loved and that they inspired and performed."

Through interviews, archival concert footage, graphic arts-style animation from Bounce Comics artist Chuck Collins and recollections of iconic recording sessions like those for Howlin Wolf's London Sessions LP in 1971, the film presents a story of their rise from their Southern plantation roots to clubs and halls around the world and back down again as the blues faded from popular music culture, painting their journeys in a fair -- if ultimately rose-colored -- light. After the film's premiere, Billboard caught up with Rosenbaum and Cadic to talk about the life and legacy of Sumlin, Perkins and Smith and the experience of putting Sidemen together.

What attracted you guys to the concept of the sideman?

Scott Rosenbaum: We grew up loving the blues and reading the backs of album covers and seeing who engineered the records and who played guitar on the records, and these were the guys for the Muddy band and the [Howlin'] Wolf band. So at the point when we got to meet them the first time, it was very clear that they weren't going to be with us forever. Pinetop was 95 when we met him, Hubert was younger, 76 or 77, but had had a heart attack, had a lung removed. It was clear that we were in the presence of music history that was fading. We just didn't quite know it was fading so quickly.

Jasin Cadic: I think what really attracted me to this project as an artist, as somebody who paints and plays in bands and writes, being an artist and getting that credit is probably number one for an artist. And I think that they earned it. People need to hear their story, too.

The thesis of the first part of the film seemed to be a quote from Levon Helm's book when he says everyone knew Muddy and Wolf, but these guys in their bands had to stay behind and hear the crazy stories from after-parties rather than attend them as well. How did you arrive at that thesis?

SR: Originally, it wasn't to highlight the fact that they were sidemen per se, it was, these were the guys on the records that inspired the Rolling Stones and the Who and the Doors. But it wasn't quite the focus, it was more just the music. And maybe in a way, the performance spoke for itself: they were the guys in the background, but you're hearing Hubert Sumlin playing the lick to "Red Rooster" that inspired the Stones, or "Back Door Man" as you saw with Robbie Krieger, that was the genesis of the idea.

JC: It's like the saying, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." Once you know they're gone you realize how important they were and you realize what should be told. [When they died] it made us switch gears a little bit and dig deeper and really tell more of the story. Not just that they were there, but what they represent and what they did and what they were a part of.

Some of the interviews in the film were impressive. What did you take away from those conversations?

SR: It wasn't like Martin Scorsese calling up these big artists and getting interviews, it was purely because of who Pinetop, Willie and Hubert were. And to hear Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Gales, Shemekia Copeland -- all these world-class musicians we grew up revering -- talk about them with such humility and reverence was amazing. You see these guys talking about them and speaking about them from a place of great respect, and it says a lot about the guys.

JC: Joe Perry spoke to us for so long that his team had to pull him away from us to go do sound check. He was just talking and he wouldn't stop with the stories and the love. It was like, once you got these people going, it's just pouring out of them. I think that these people that we talked to saw the need to tell the stories and make sure that their legacies are solid and the stories are told.

SR: I think on some level, with the rare exceptions like Mick Jagger or Robert Plant -- true frontmen -- that everyone is a sideman in some way. Jimmy Page would probably argue that point, but he's the sideman to Robert Plant in a way. I think it's really the respect that these guys had for the blueprint of what they did that really came through, and I think they could empathize on some level as well.

I've read books on those legendary London Sessions with Wolf and Muddy, how Clapton was afraid he wouldn't be invited back, those things. What was it like to hear those stories from these guys' side?

SR: As far as that London Session goes, it was a window into that animation in our film. If you recall that London Sessions album cover, it's animated figures of Clapton and Wolf and Bill Wyman, and it was always a vision of mine to animate that section using sort of those characters. Jason was the one who knew this fantastic New York animator and it really brought that whole segment of the film to fruition.

JC: When Scott first came up with the idea to do the London Session and animate it because of the album cover, we expanded on that idea. When the film started to add their childhoods, there's nothing to show, of course. So instead of showing stock or recreating or something, we came up with the idea to do all their childhoods in cartoon, too. A friend of mine, Chuck Collins, he's based out of New York, he does something online called Bounce Comics, and that's his style. So as soon as we talked about it I knew, "This is the guy I'm calling." And he was in.

SR: We wanted very much this film to transcend the music audience -- certainly just the blues audience, although we wanted to serve and satisfy those audiences -- we wanted to make this thing different than anything people have seen before. I have a shelf full of blues documentaries, and they're great, but they're only for blues fans. Willie, Pine and Hubert asked us to make sure that the music lived on beyond their lives time and again in the interviews, and the way we interpreted that was to make a film that transcends just the niche audience.

That's a heavy burden they put on you.

SR: It's certainly is; it's been a long seven years, five years since they passed. There was no way we couldn't finish this film after that.

The film almost becomes a sad story; towards the end of these guys' lives, things weren't really going all that well anymore. There was that one quote about Hubert, that he was "too famous to be a sideman, but too shy to be a frontman" after Wolf died. Pinetop was 90 and living in public housing with multiple family members being abused.

JC: There was that window, like we showed, where the blues was gone, and they had no work and were suffering. No one's going to make a movie only about the low point, but you have to include the low point.

SR: Clearly we loved these guys and this is a Valentine to them, but if we just did all of the high points and the great things, you'd lose that three dimension of the people that they were, and the lives they led, the suffering that they had to go through.

JC: The perseverance. It adds to them as people, and to come back through even that? Most people would just walk away, or just curl up and die.

It's like the bookend of struggle. But then at the end, Pinetop gets a Grammy at age 97.

JC: That wrote itself.

SR: We went out to L.A. in February 2011 to film the Grammys and hope that they would win, which they did, and then the next month we were down in Austin for [Pinetop's] funeral. It was unbelievable. And then that whole year unfolded: Willie died next, and then Hubert right behind him. It was nuts.

What response have you gotten from the film?

SR: The only one that really mattered to us was the friends and family and Muddy Waters' band that was there Friday night, as well as the local Austin residents who have such an appreciation for the history, the music, and in all likelihood knew Pinetop as well.

JC: Willie's son was there -- he appears in the film towards the end, Javik -- as the credits were rolling he comes up behind us and gives us a hug and says, "We did it." That's all that matters right now.

After spending seven years working on this film, speaking to all these people, really getting to know these guys, what did you walk away from the experience with?

SR: As a filmmaker and an artist, you're certainly dealing with all kinds of struggle. And it was hard for seven years working on this project. And as you said earlier, it was a heavy burden that they laid at our feet, and there was no way not to finish it. But there was certainly a lot of lean times where we ran out of money, where we ran out of will. But then you stop to think, "Wait a second, we're making a film about the very thing we're going through on such a small scale."

For these guys to grow up on a plantation and survive through plantation life and rise from that and persevere through all of the shit they had to deal with traveling through the south in the '50s and '60s, dealing with all the racism. Paul Usher, Muddy's harmonica player who was [at the premiere] on Friday night was telling me how they would drive in one big car, bass strapped to the roof, and oftentimes they'd leave a gig and hit the next town and want to get a hotel room, but they couldn't stay there because they were black. So the suffering that they endured, we can't even comprehend.