Wilson "Thunder" Smith

Vocals, Piano

Date of Birth:  November 17, 1914    Wharton, TX

Date of Death:  August 20, 1963    Houston, TX

Place of Burial:  Calvary Hill Cemetery

                         21723 Aldine Westfield Road

                         Humble, TX 77338

Has Marker:  Yes (Provided by Texas Blues Project)

Grave Location:  Block 2, Lot 381, Space 1

                           30° 1' 45" N / 95° 23' 0" W

WILSON “THUNDER” SMITH

Born in 1914, not much is known about pianist Wilson Smith. There are no extant photographs of the musician or physical descriptions that would give us a picture of him. What is known, however, lends itself to the legends and history of Texas Blues.

 

His story is mainly tied to that of Sam Hopkins and Alger "Texas" Alexander. In 1946, when Lola Anne Cullum, a manager and talent scout, "discovered" Mr. Hopkins, a plan was set in motion to take him to California to record. In a 1967 article about Mrs. Cullum, Mike Leadbitter, a British writer and blues historian, wrote that Alexander had introduced Wilson Smith to her. History indicates, in its various forms, that Hopkins wanted his "cousin" Alexander to go along with them, but that Mrs. Cullum insisted otherwise; she was apparently afraid of Alexander and the notion that he had been recently released from prison for, allegedly, murder (the prison time has never been authenticated). Hopkins then refused to go to California until Mrs. Cullum then convinced him she would take along Smith. This effectively put an end to Alexander’s recording career, one that had already been stalled since 1934. He would only make one more recording, in 1950, before falling into obscurity and passing away in 1954.

 

Once there, it was pretty clear that Hopkins was the star, but Smith was given a chance to put down a few sides with lead vocals and Hopkins playing accompaniment on guitar. Other songs find Smith providing accompaniment to Hopkins. Those four sides can be found on The Complete Aladdin Recordings: Lightnin' Hopkins (EMI Records USA ‎CDP-7-96843-2). It was during these sessions that a strong part of Hopkins' legend was born. Wilson Smith may have already been tagged with the nickname "Thunder" because of his rollicking piano style, but, at some point it was decided by Aladdin personnel that if he was "Thunder," then Hopkins should be "Lightnin'" and the duo was called "Thunder and Lightnin'." The Leadbitter article quotes Mrs. Cullum in 1967 as saying the nicknames were given in the studio because “Wilson made thunder on the piano – Sam was Lightnin’ on guitar.” Legends being what they are, they of course invite telling and re-telling until once previously unknown aspects become part of the legend and thereby true. While Hopkins later adhered to the general "truth" of this story, he was also known to have told folks that he had actually been struck by lightning while sitting on his front porch.

 

The Smith/Hopkins cuts were eventually released on Aladdin under the name “Thunder & Lightnin’.” However, of the four sides recorded, only three (Can’t Do Like You Used To, West Coast Blues, L.A. Blues) were released under the duo’s name. The fourth song, Big Mama Jump (Little Mama Blues), was done under only Smith’s name.

 

After the sessions were completed, Smith and Hopkins returned to Houston and went their separate ways. Smith would record again for Bill Quinn's Gold Star and the Downtown label, as another duo with Luther “Rocky” Stoneham, but his career quickly disappeared. At the time of his death he was listed as a laborer. Smith was killed in a violent bar brawl on August 20, 1963. He is buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery in Humble, Texas. Smith’s marker was the first purchased and placed by the Texas Blues Project.

SELECTED RECORDINGS

Lightnin' Hopkins ‎– The Complete Aladdin Recordings, EMI Records USA ‎(CDP-7-96843-2)

Texas Blues: Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings, Arhoolie Records (CD 352)

Lightnin' Hopkins ‎– Lightnin' Special: Volume 2 Of The Collected Works, JSP Records (JSP7790)

As Duo with Luther "Rocky/Rockie" Stoneham

Thunder's Unfinished Boogie / The Train Is Leaving, Down Town Recording (Down Town 2011)

New Worried Life Blues / Mable Blues, Down Town Recording (Down Town 2012)

Low Down Dirty Ways / Water Coast Blues, Down Town Recording (Down Town 2013)

As Accompanist

Andy Thomas - Baby Quit Me Blues / Angel Child, Gold Star (645)

Sunny James - Please Mam Forgive Me / Excuse Me Baby, Down Town Recording (Down Town 2010)

Mr. Honey - Build A Cave / Who May Your Regular Be, Artist Record Co. (102)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barkley, Ron et al. The Handbook of Texas Music. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003.

Bradley, Andy and Roger Wood.  House of Hits. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Bogdanov, Vladimir et al. (Ed.). All Music Guide to The Blues. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003, 3rd Edition.

Charters, Samuel B. The Country Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

Clayton, Lawrence and Joe W. Specht. The Roots of Texas Music. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.

Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But the Blues. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Edwards, David Honey Boy. The World Don't Owe Me Nothin'. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997.

Govenar, Alan. Meeting the Blues – The Rise of the Texas Sound. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

______. Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

______. Lightnin’ Hopkins – His Life and Blues. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010.

Harrison, David. Blues – A Photographic Documentary. New York: Crescent Books, 1977.

Herzhaft, Gérard. Encyclopedia of the Blues (Second Edition). Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.

Koster, Rick. Texas Music. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Leadbitter, Michael (Ed.). Nothin’ But the Blues. London: Hanover Books Ltd., 1971.

Oliver, Paul. The Story of The Blues. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Rolf, Julia (Ed.). The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Jazz & Blues. London: Flame Tree Publishing, 2007.

Santelli, Robert. The Big Book Of Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 2001 (revised).

Wood, Roger and James Fraher. Down in Houston. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

 

“Summary of Houston Police Department Records,” Blues & Rhythm, 2010, issue 251, p. 13.

© 2019 Texas Blues Project

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