Lightnin' Hopkins - Biography
By J Poet
Lightnin' Hopkins was a Texas blues guitar player who bridged the acoustic roots of the music and the more electric sounds of the 60s. He had two careers, the first as an R&B star in the 40s and 50s, the second as a folk and blues icon during the 60s blues revival. He recorded prolifically throughout his career, often making two or three albums a year, and it’s estimated he cut more than 1,000 original songs and over 100 albums, excluding reissues and compilations. He’s one of the most original and imitated blues guitarists, comfortable on both acoustic and electric guitar, although it’s his acoustic work that stands out. His ability to mimic a whole rhythm section with thick chord clusters, driving bass lines, and shimmering finger picked leads is remarkable. He was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix and Jimmie Vaughan, and the subject of the 1969 Les Blank documentary The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins. He was inducted into The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and died of cancer in 1982.
Sam Hopkins on March 16, 1912, in a small town near Houston. Abe Hopkins, Lightnin's father, was killed in a card game when Lightnin' was three; his mother, Francis moved the family to Leona, Texas. Lightnin's first guitar was a self-made instrument fashioned from a cigar box and chicken wire. His brother Joel got him started with basic chords, but when he was eight he saw Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church social and started playing along with him. Jefferson was impressed with his nerve and after the show taught Hopkins a few licks.
Hopkins dropped out of grammar school to bum trough Texas playing on the streets for tips and at parties, picnics and country dances. He met Jefferson again and was his guide for a while, sometimes opening shows for him, sometimes playing second guitar behind him. In the late 20s, he teamed up with his cousin Alger “Texas” Alexander and played the bars and juke joints of Houston and eastern Texas. Around the same time he married, but his wife, frustrated by his long absences to play music, left him and took their children with her. He spent time on a chain gang for having sex with a white woman and did time on the Houston County Prison Farm in the late 1930s.
In 1943 Hopkins married for the third time, to Antoinette Charles, and worked as a sharecropper at a farm near Dallas. In 1946 he got a new guitar and moved back to Houston. With “Tex” Alexander he began playing the juke joints and bars and soon built up a following with his ability to improvise songs on the spot and his driving guitar style. Lola Anne Cullen of Aladdin Records discovered Hopkins that same year. She didn’t like Alexander and teamed Hopkins with Wilson “Thunder” Smith, and called them Thunder and Lightnin’. The nickname stuck. Thunder and Lightnin’ didn’t last, but his first single as Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Katie Mae Blues,” was a regional hit and he made 42 more singles for Aladdin. His output is collected on the two disc set The Complete Aladdin Recordings (1992 Capital). Hopkins left Aladdin for Gold Star records, feeling he’d been underpaid. At Gold Star Records, Hopkins made label owner Bill Quinn pay him $100 cash per song at the sessions, but the downside was that he signed away his royalties for that hundred dollars. His Gold Star sessions are collected on The Gold Star Sessions, Vol. 1 (1990 Arhoolie) and The Gold Star Sessions, Vol. 2 (1990 Arhoolie).
Hopkins also cut sides for Modern/RPM (“Tim Moore's Farm”), Jax, Mercury, Decca, Herald, where he played electric guitar on hits like “Lightnin's Boogie” and “Hopkins Sky Hop,” and almost 20 other small R&B outfits. Some of these early recordings are available on Lightnin' and the Blues: The Herald Sessions (2001 Buddha), Jake Head Boogie (1990 Ace UK) has some of his RPM sides and out takes, From the Vaults of Everest Records (2006 Collectables), Blues Train (1999 Mainstream) has hits from the Sittin’ in With label, and Blues (1973 Ace of Hearts UK) has some of his Decca singles.
By 1959 rock’n’roll had pulled the plug on the blues, even in the African American community. Despite the fact that Hopkins’ music clearly influenced the new generation of rock guitarists. Luckily, the folk revival of the 60s had an appetite for down home blues and Hopkins got “discovered” by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick who helped book Hopkins into folk clubs and college concerts. The folkies flocked to Hopkins and his second career took off. Samuel Charters produced Lightnin' Hopkins (1960 Folkways, 1990 Smithsonian Folkways) and he became more popular than ever scoring big with folk and jazz audiences. . In 1962 he won Down Beat’s International Jazz Critics Poll as best New Star, Male Singer, 20 years into his career. He played Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, toured Europe with the legendary American Folk Blues Festival in 1964, and appeared on bills with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
Hopkins continued to play music and make records until his death, but he had an disregard for fame and the music business. He hated flying and never had a telephone and would turn town high paying tours to stay at home in Houston an play dive bars and juke joints. He recorded whenever he could, for anyone who’d pay him and cut more than 1,000 original songs and over 100 albums for dozens of labels large and small. Some of the best: The chilling acoustic sides of Autobiography in Blues (1960 Tradition, 2006 Tradition/Ryko) and Country Blues (1960 Tradition, 2006 Tradition/Ryko) recorded by Mack McCormick in Hopkins’ living room. The mostly acoustic albums he made for Prestige and Bluesville including Last Night Blues (1990 Original Blues Classics) with Sonny Terry on harp, Lightnin' (1990 Original Blues Classics), Blues in My Bottle (1990 Original Blues Classics), Goin' Away (1991 Original Blues Classics) an electric set with a guitar/bass/drums combo, The King of the Blues: Live at Swarthmore (1990 Original Blues Classics), a set that shows Hopkins at his spell binding best before an adoring live crowd, and Soul Blues (1990 Original Blues Classics).
Other albums of interest include: Lightnin' Sam Hopkins & Spider Kilpatrick (1962 Arhoolie, 1995 Arhoolie), a guitar and drums duo that predates the White Stripes by decades, Hopkins Brothers: Lightnin’, Joel, & John Henry (1964 Arhoolie, 1995 Arhoolie) is a rare set featuring Lightnin’ and his two brothers, again captured at home on a small recorder, Po’ Lightnin' (1988 Arhoolie, 1995 Arhoolie), Lightnin' Strikes (1962 Vee Jay), Hello Central (2008 Columbia Legacy), electric guitar sides recorded for Mainstream in 1950 and 51, Freeform Patterns (1993 Collectables) a session with the 13th Floor Elevators originally released on International Artists in 1965, and The Little Darlin' Sound of Lightnin' Hopkins: Lightnin' Strikes Twice (2005 Koch) all he sides Hopkins cut for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darkin’ records in 1967, formerly available on various Lost Sessions albums.
In 1970, Hopkins had a car accident that many physical problems and contributed to a slow decline in his health. Still, he continued touring the world and recording until he died of cancer of the esophagus on January 30, 1982. Hopkins was a master innovator on guitar, and sessions often consisted of him vamping on the guitar and making things up as he wet along. His albums range from the brilliant to the bizarre, and with his disregard for contracts – as long as he got paid, he’d play – he turned out huge catalogue. Since his death, labels great and small, all around the world, have reissued and repackaged his songs, so be careful when choosing an album.
Suggestions: Live at Newport (2002 Vanguard) a live recording of his legendary sets at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Sonet Blues Story (2006 Verve) sides cut for the Sonet label on electric guitar in 1974, and Fishing Clothes: The Jewel Recordings 1965-1969 (2001 Westside UK) his three Jewel albums and many out takes on two CDs.