Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins

Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards

Date of Birth:  March 15, 1912    Centerville, TX

Date of Death:  January 30, 1982    Houston, TX

Place of Burial:  Forest Park - Lawndale

                          6900 Lawndale Street

                          Houston, TX 77023

Has Marker:  Yes

Grave Location:  29° 43' 11" N / 95° 18' 9" W

 “Now, I’ll tell you about the blues…

the blues dwell with you every day, everywhere.”

Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins[1]

 

Texas blues, like many other musical forms, is an amalgamation of influences.  While some influences, however, are more localized than others (e.g., Mississippi Delta blues), Texas blues feels the influence of a much broader field including, but not limited to, early African-American spirituals and gospel, central European polkas, work camp songs, jazz, and even early Mexican, zydeco, country and swing music.

Perhaps the most dominant sub-genre of Texas blues became known as “country blues.”  Played acoustically, and mainly on the guitar, the music engages in “more freely improvised, loosely rhythmic figures.”[2] Giving rise to this looser style may have been that many of the musicians’ lifestyle was that of an itinerant as many were known as wandering social outcasts “whose lyrical themes not surprisingly include loneliness, alienation, and travel.”[3]

One such itinerant musician, and perhaps the earliest influence on country blues, was Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929).[4] Blind from birth, Jefferson began playing guitar and performing as early as 1912.  By 1914 he was living in Dallas and making his living as a musician. Jefferson began making records in 1925 on the Paramount label. 

His travels began to take him throughout Texas and one day in 1920 landed him in Buffalo, Texas, playing a church event.  Attending that event was a young Sam Hopkins.  Having learned to play guitar from one of his older brothers, the impudent young Hopkins is rumored to have tried to play along with Jefferson only to be chastised by the bluesman, but was allowed to play along once Jefferson was told Hopkins was an eight-year-old boy.[5]

It was from that moment that Hopkins would devote himself to playing music that would eventually influence and enthrall a worldwide audience of musicians and blues enthusiasts.

 

Blues singer and guitarist Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was born March 15, 1912, in Centerville, Texas.[6]  Initially learning to play guitar from his brother, Hopkins began his musical career in Central Texas in the Twenties under the tutelage of Texas blues pioneers Alger “Texas” Alexander, Hopkins’ cousin, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.[7]  Both musicians were known for idiosyncratic singing, but Jefferson more so for his playing technique, which tended to include “bursts of speed and …silences…flurries of notes and sharp, hammered punctuations, [which] became the basis of Mr. Hopkin’s [sic] skill.”[8] [9]

After vagabonding around the state for several years Hopkins made an initial sojourn to Houston, Texas, in the Thirties, which did not prove fruitful for the musician, and he returned to Centerville.[10] Until the mid-1940s he worked as a farmhand and musician when he, and his cousin Alexander, again went to Houston and eventually took up residence in the Third Ward.

Hopkins quickly became a mainstay in the early Houston music clubs, particularly those located on Dowling Street (now Emancipation Avenue) in the Third Ward.  In 1946 Hopkins and Alexander were “discovered” by Lola Ann Cullum[11] talent scout for Aladdin Records. Hopkins alone, however, departed for Los Angeles to make his first recordings along with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith.[12] It was during this period that Hopkins obtained the nickname “Lightnin’” and the duo was quickly deemed “Thunder and Lightnin’.” Out of these sessions, “Katy Mae” became Hopkins’ first hit record.[13] Returning to Houston, Hopkins began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label (now SugarHill Recording Studio), the earliest Houston label to record blues.[14]  Hopkins immediately recorded two certifiable hits in “Short Haired Woman” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”[15] Despite early recording success, during the 1950s Hopkins could still be found playing Third Ward street corners, dance parties, and Dowling Street establishments.

Unlike many early blues greats that disappeared after initial recognition, Hopkins maintained a regular playing and recording career.  The blues, in general, went into a lull period during the Fifties with the advent of rock and roll. During the 1950s, although he rarely played outside of Texas, Hopkins prolifically recorded songs.[16] Life would change again for Hopkins at the end of the Fifties with his “re-discovery” by such musicologists as Chris Strachwitz, Samuel Charters, Mack McCormick, and Paul Oliver. As a result, larger recognition came during the 1960s with a surging interest in folk and blues music which led to Hopkins playing before more integrated audiences[17] and, eventually, Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Queen of England in Great Britain. Suffering injuries from a car accident in 1970, Hopkins curtailed his touring, but still regularly performed. 

Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was a major influence, both locally and nationally, on blues and rock and roll. He has been variously called “a hugely important voice in the history of the blues,”[18] “one of the most culturally significant artists in the history of blues music,”[19] “one of the last great…blues singers and composers,”[20]  “universally regarded as one of the true blues giants,”[21] and “one of the great country blues singers and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players.”[22] Hopkins is known to have had influence on many important musicians including Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Jimmie Vaughn, Stevie Ray Vaughn (1954-1990) and Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997).[23]

Such accolades are not given minor players in the music world for there are far too many also-rans.  Hopkins’ playing style, writing, and singing all contributed to his success over seven decades. Recording approximately 100 albums and 600-800 songs during his historic career – easily the most recorded bluesman – the Texas-born blues giant died of cancer at age 69 on January 30, 1982.[24]

During his lifetime, Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins received little official, public recognition of his valuable contribution to Houston and its music community or the state as a whole.  In fact, official recognition of Hopkins’ efforts only occurred three times: “at the 1979 Juneteenth Festival where then Mayor Jim McConn proclaimed the day as “Lightnin’ Hopkins Day””[25]; by the late Eleanor Tinsley, a former City Council member, who was quoted as saying a memorial for Hopkins is needed “for future generations, to remind them of the contribution he made during his lifetime not only in Houston, but around the world.” and on the twentieth anniversary of his death, a statue of Hopkins was unveiled in Crockett, Texas, where he would occasionally play in his early career before Houston.[26] [27] [28] Finally, though, on November 13, 2010, an official State of Texas Historical Marker was unveiled at the corner of Emancipation Avenue (formerly Dowling Street) and Francis Street in Houston’s Historic Third Ward.[29]

 

- R. Eric Davis, 2018

 

[1] Hopkins, Sam Lightnin’. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a film by Les Blanks and Skip Gerson, 1967, Flower Films.

[2] Evans, David. “Goin’ Up the Country” in Nothing But the Blues (ed. Lawrence Cohn; New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), p. 55. 

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_blues (accessed 28 August 28 2009). Lyrics, of course, were not limited to these three themes.

[4]  Evans, p. 55. Also: Allmusic.com, “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:3ifoxq95ldke~T1 (accessed 28 August 2009).

[5] Govenar, Alan. Texas Blues – The Rise of a Contemporary Sound (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), p. 42.  Govenar writes:  “In a story Hopkins often told, he tried to play along, but Jefferson was displeased and shouted, “Boy, you got to play it right!” When Jefferson realized that the other musician was an eight-year-old boy, though, he hoisted the child onto the bed of a truck and let him play. From that day on, Hopkins devoted himself to the blues….”

[6] Hopkins was born to Frances and Abe Hopkins.  He was the youngest of six children including Joel and John Henry whom became recognized blues musicians in their own right.

[7] Texas Alexander was a rarity in the blues in that while he was a singer, he didn’t play an instrument.  It was under this situation that Hopkins often accompanied his older cousin as guitarist.

[8] Palmer, Robert. “Lightnin’ Hopkins at 68: Still Singing Those Blues,” The New York Times (October 31, 1980), Section The Weekend, p. C14. 

[9] Phelan, Charlotte. “Song Maker,” Houston Post (August 23, 1959), newspaper clipping from Hopkins ephemera file located in the Texas Room of Houston Public Library. “But nobody taught me,” Lightning has said. “I just see how they do and then I do it my own way. Make my own songs.”

[10] Hopkins reportedly served jail time in Houston County for gambling offenses and worked on a road gang.  This song eventually led to his writing “Penitentiary Blues.” No official records have ever been located to verify Hopkins' claim.

[11] Lola A. Cullum (1896-1970) was a freelance talent scout for Aladdin Records in Los Angeles and also manager for Houston-based national star Amos Milburn.

[12] Reports vary as to why Alexander did not go with Hopkins. One account reports that Alexander disappeared and was replaced by Wilson Smith (Pete Welding, liner notes for Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Complete Aladdin Recordings, compilation by EMI Records, 1991). Another account indicates Lola Cullum, the talent scout, replaced Alexander after she learned that Alexander had just gotten out of prison (Govenar, 246).  Either account is curious as they were supposed to be going together as a duo.  Since Alexander was a singer, why would Cullen have “replaced” him with or, as Govenar suggests, “hired” a pianist to replace him?  In the ensuing recordings, Smith sang on 3-4 songs, but Hopkins sang the majority and became the star.

[13] This song may be variously known as “Katy May,” “Katie Mae Blues,” “Katie Mae,” and “Katie Mae (Blues).”

[14] Quinn began recording Hopkins on Gold Star in 1947. Don Robey founded Peacock Records in 1949.

[15] Racine, Marty. “Lightnin’ Hopkins His Music Set Him Free,” Houston Chronicle (March 31, 2002), Texas Magazine, 8.  “Short Haired Woman” sold 40,000 copies and “Baby Please Don’t Go” 80,000 copies.

[16] During his career Hopkins recorded for an enormous amount of record companies including Aladdin, Arhoolie, Bluesville, Candid, Collectables, Decca, Fantasy, Fire, Folkways, Gold Star, Herald, Jewel,  Mercury, Modern/RPM, Prestige, Sittin’ In With, Tradition, Tumbleweed Records, Vee-Jay, Verve, and World Pacific.

[17] Cowley, John H. “Don’t Leave Me Here” in Nothing But the Blues (ed. Lawrence Cohn; New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 299. Cowley writes of Hopkins, “…this singer-guitarist…contributed greatly to awareness among white “folk” enthusiasts of black blues…in the United States.”

[18] Govenar, Alan. Correspondence with the author dated 26 August 2009.

[19] Wood, Ph.D., Roger. Correspondence with the author dated 27 August 2009

[20] Staff. “Lightnin’ Here Next Sunday,” Houston Chronicle (May 7, 1967).

[21] Shadwick, Keith. The Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues (Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2001), 482.

[22] Saxon, Wolfgang. “Sam (Lightnin’) Hopkins, 69: Blues Singer and Guitarist,” The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/1982/02/01/obituaries/sam-lightnin-hopkins-69-blues-singer-and-guitarist.html), accessed 25 August 2009.

[23] Kruth, John. To Live’s To Fly (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), 22, 29.

     Hardy, Robert Earl. A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt (Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2008), 61.

     Scarborough, John. “Big Mama and Lightnin’ Mesmerize Blues Buffs,” Houston Chronicle (May 13, 1971), Sect. 2, p. 3.

[24] While a completely accurate discography is not available to date, it is known that Hopkins recorded more albums than either Elvis Presley (70) or the Beatles (19) did during their lifetimes or careers. In 1968 Digby Diehl wrote after interviewing Hopkins for the Los Angeles Times, “that Lightnin’ went off to play another of the two to three hundred songs he keeps in his head….” (Diehl, Digby. “Lightnin’ Hopkins: Bolt From the Blues,” Los Angeles Times (July 12, 1968), F12). Hopkins is also regarded as the “most recorded bluesman in history.” (Racine, Marty. “’Things are tough tonight – we just got the blues,’” Houston Chronicle (February 7, 1982)).

[25] Staff. “’Lightnin’ Hopkins dies,” Houston Chronicle (February 1, 1982), sect. 3, p. 8.

[26] Hensel, Jr., Bill. “Tinsley determined to honor musician,” Houston Post (March 20, 1983).

[27] Claypool, Bob. “Respects offered at ‘last call’ for Hopkins,” Houston Post (February 3, 1982). Claypool writes Hopkins was “a man who just may have been the most famous and important musician the city ever produced. Despite his powerful presence in the city (and, as Albert Collins said to me once, “Houston was always Lightnin’s town – when it came to the blues he owned it”), the truth is that Lightnin’ never got his just desserts, his rightful recognition, from the city fathers.”

[28] Racine, Marty. “Lightnin’ Hopkins His Music Set Him Free,” Houston Chronicle (March 31, 2002), Texas Magazine, 8.  

[29] Dansby, Andrew. “Bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins to be honored with Houston marker,” Houston Chronicle, Tuesday, November 9, 2010. http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Bluesman-Lightnin-Hopkins-to-be-honored-with-1704632.php. Accessed December 4, 2017.

SELECTED RECORDINGS

The Complete Aladdin Recordings, EMI Records USA (CDP-7-96843-2)

The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings, Prestige/Bluesville (7PCD-4406-2)

Lightnin' And The Blues: The Herald Sessions, Buddha Records (74465 99782 2)

Blue Lightnin': The Jewel Sessions 1965-1969, P-Vine Records (PCD-5627/8)

Lightnin' Hopkins, Smithsonian/Folkways Records (CD SF 40019)

Autobiography In Blues, Tradition (TCD 1002)

Country Blues, Tradition (TCD 1003)

Lightnin' Strikes, Collectables (COL-CD-7128)

Lightnin' In New York, Candid (CCD 79010)

Swathmore Concert, Prestige (OBCCD-563-2)

Hootin' The Blues, Prestige (OBCCD-571-2)

Live At Newport, Vanguard (79715-2)

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© 2019 Texas Blues Project

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