Bluesman Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was a direct link to the rural blues tradition and a key figure in the transition from country to city blues. He recorded for a host of labels and was one of the most prolific blues artists of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s Hopkins traveled through Texas playing at beer joints, picnics, and parties. He recorded as a popular artist after World War II and was rediscovered by folklorists in 1959, prompting a resurgence in his popularity and leading him to worldwide fame as a blues guitarist and singer.
Richard C. Walls in Musician wrote that Hopkins possessed “a bruised whiskey voice” that had “a clipped but expressive sound” and also noted that Hopkins’s delivery was “a singular and affecting mix of private pain and public celebration.” The performer rarely emoted on record, Walls remarked, but when he did, it was “hair-raising.” “More often he [drew] the listener in, [confiding] or [stating] a plain truth,” observed Walls, “letting his virtuosic guitar playing elaborate on the feeling.”
As a country blues guitarist, Hopkins was “powerful” and “idiosyncratic,” according to Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke. His playing possessed “a dark rhythmic drive” that “in a solo setting, physically charged the rugged poetic beauty of his ‘po’ Lightnin’ laments and the gnarly poignancy of his singing.” In a group setting, Hopkins produced some virile blues recordings, though some back-up musicians could not keep up with his improvisational approach.
Sam Hopkins was born into the blues life on March 16, 1912, in Centerville, Texas, a small farm town north of Houston. Hopkins’s musician father, Abe, was killed over a card game when Sam was only three, and Sam’s grandfather had hung himself to escape the indignities of slavery. After his father died, Sam’s mother, Francis Sims Hopkins, moved him and his four brothers and one sister to Leona, Texas. When Sam was eight, he made his first guitar out of a cigar box and chicken wire. His brother Joel taught him the basic chords, but it was at the feet of Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson that Hopkins began his real blues education.
Hopkins met Jefferson around 1920 at a Baptist Church Association meeting in Buffalo, Texas. Jefferson was singing and playing for the crowd; Hopkins, who was only eight, got behind the stage and joined in. At first Jefferson was angered, but when he noticed that Hopkins was just a boy, he softened and showed Hopkins a few licks. It wasn’t too much later that
For the Record…
Born Sam Hopkins, March 15, 1912, in Centerville, TX; died of cancer, January 30, 1982; son of Abe Hopkins (a musician) and Frances Sims; married Antoinette Charles, 1943.
Guitarist and singer, 1920-82; played picnics and parties in Houston and eastern Texas, 1920-46; joined with cousin, blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander, late 1920s; signed with Aladdin Records, 1946; rediscovered by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick, 1959; recorded for a variety of labels and toured the United States and Europe, 1959-82; appeared in films, including The Blues, 1962, The Sun’s Gonna Shine, Flower Films, 1967, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Flower Films, 1968, and A Program of Songs by Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins, University of Washington, 1971.
Awards: New Star award, Male Singer, Down Beat magazine International Jazz Critics’ Poll, 1962.
Hopkins left home to hobo through Texas playing in the streets, at picnics, parties, and dances—often just for tips. Even at the age of eight he knew he wasn’t willing to live the hard life most Texas blacks faced in those days. “Chop that cotton for six bits a day, plow that mule for six bits a day—that wasn’t in storage for me,” he told Les Blank in the film documentary The Sun’s Gonna Shine.
Hopkins eventually reconnected with Jefferson and for a time served as his guide. Then in the late 1920s Hopkins formed what was to be a long-running duo with his cousin, blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander. The two played the Houston bar circuit and toured eastern Texas. During this era Hopkins was chronically short of money. At one point he was sentenced to a chain gang for committing adultery with a white woman. He probably also served time in the Houston County Prison Farm in the late 1930s.
When Hopkins married, he and his first wife hired themselves out to Tom Moore, a farmer whose callousness Hopkins immortalized in the song, “Tom Moore’s Blues.” “You know,” he sang, “I got a telegram this morning/It say your wife is dead/I showed it to Mr. Moore he says/‘Go ahead nigger, you know you gotta plow a ridge’/That white man said ‘It’s been rainin’/Yes sir I’m way behind/I may let you bury that woman/On your dinner time.”
In 1943 Hopkins married his third wife, Antoinette Charles, and moved to a large farm north of Dallas, where he worked for a time as a sharecropper. Around 1946, he was given a new guitar by a family friend, “Uncle” Lucian Hopkins. That inspired Sam to move back to Houston where he teamed up with his old partner Tex Alexander to play the local beer joints.
As luck would have it, at that time Lola Anne Cullen of Aladdin Records was in Houston scouting for blues artists. She discovered Hopkins and paired him with Wilson “Thunder” Smith, creating the team “Thunder and Lightnin’.” Lightnin’s pairing with “Thunder” was short lived, but his relationship with Aladdin proved fruitful. “Katie Mae Blues,” his first single, was a hit around Houston and its success led to 41 more sides for Aladdin.
After a few years, Hopkins left Aladdin and contracted with Houston’s Gold Star Records. Hopkins insisted that record company owner Bill Quinn pay him $100 cash per song at the recording sessions; he was convinced that he would be ripped off otherwise. Looking back, however, historians have commented that this arrangement caused Hopkins to lose large sums in royalties.
Through the early 1950s, Hopkins recorded for small labels and hit Billboard magazine’s rhythm and blues Top Ten with songs like “T Model Blues” and “Coffee Blues.” His uptempo numbers of this era helped to pioneer rock and roll, but rock’s teenage audience had little interest in Hopkins himself. To make matters worse, his original black audience also abandoned him for a more teen-oriented sound. Given his declining popularity, record companies lost interest in Hopkins, and he stopped recording as a popular artist in 1956.
Scarcely three years after his exit from the popular marketplace, Hopkins was “discovered” by Houston folklorist Mack McCormick and introduced to a college educated audience, which saw the blues as “folk music.” That same year folklorist Samuel Charters devoted a chapter of his book The Country Blues to Hopkins and recorded a whole album of Hopkins’s material for release on Folkways.
When labels realized that Hopkins’s sparse acoustic guitar and understated prose appealed to white audiences, they rushed to record him. In 1962 he won Down Beat magazine’s International Jazz Critics’ Poll in the New Star, Male Singer category. In the years that followed he “became a hero to academia, the young, the educated, and the liberals,” according to Greg Drust and Stephen Peeples, who wrote the notes to Mojo Hand: a Lightnin’ Hopkins Anthology. “Beyond his stature as a bluesman,” Drust and Peeples continued, “Lightnin’ also functioned as a teacher, philosopher, and shaman of sorts.”
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Hopkins continued to record. He became one of the post-World War 11 blues’ most prolific talents. He toured the United States and Europe and completed hundreds of sessions for scores of major and independent labels. But while his fame grew, his attitude toward his career remained much the same as it had when he was roaming around Texas. “He hated to fly, and refused to have a telephone,” Les Blank wrote in Living Blues. “He turned down tour offers of $2,000 a week yet played in small rough Houston bars for $17 a night.” In 1967 Hopkins was featured in Les Blank’s short subject documentary, The Sun’s Gonna Shine. The following year he was featured in another Les Blank documentary, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, which won a Gold Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival as the best documentary of 1970.
In 1970 Hopkins was in an auto accident that put his neck in a brace and initiated a steady decline in his health. Nevertheless, he maintained a compulsive work rate during the 1970s, touring the United States, Canada, and Europe. He died of cancer of the esophagus on January 30, 1982. Remembering Hopkins, filmmaker Blank told Drust, “He was a clown and oracle, wit and scoundrel. Like Shakespeare, he had an understanding of all people and all their feelings. He [was] an eloquent spokesman for the human soul which dwells in us all.”
Herald Recordings, Collectables, 1954.
Blues in My Bottle, Ace, 1961.
Goin’Away, Fantasy, 1963, reissued, 1988.
Double Blues, Fantasy, 1964.
Lightning Hopkins, With His Brothers & Barbara Dane, Arhoolie, 1964.
Texas Blues Man, Arhoolie, 1968.
Historic Recordings, 1952-1953, Blues Classics, 1986.
Early Recordings, Volumes 1 and 2, Arhoolie, 1990.
Lightnin’, Fantasy, 1990, Arhoolie, 1993.
Lightnin’ Hopkins, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1990.
The Texas Bluesman, Arhoolie, 1990.
The Complete Aladdin Recordings, EMI, 1991.
The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings, Prestige, 1991.
The Gold Star Sessions, Volumes 1 and 2, Arhoolie, 1991.
The Complete Candid Otis Spann/Lightnin’ Hopkins Sessions, Mosaic, 1992. Forever, EPM, 1992.
(With Sonny Terry) Last Night Blues, Fantasy, 1992.
It’s a Sin to Be Rich, Verve, 1993.
Mojo Hand: The Lightnin’ Hopkins Anthology, Rhino, 1993.
Sittin’ In, Mainstream, 1993.
Shake That Thing, New Rose, 1993.
Swarthmore Concert, Fantasy, 1993.
In Berkeley, Arhoolie.
Golden Classics —Mojo Hand, Collectables.
Hootin’ the Blues, Prestige.
How Many More Years I Got, Ace, reissued, Fantasy.
The Lost Texas Tapes, Volumes 1-5, Collectables.
Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers, edited by Sheldon Harris, Arlington House, 1979.
Charters, Samuel Barclay, The Country Blues, Rinehart, 1959.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, New England, 1992.
Living Blues, summer/autumn 1982.
Musician, August 1992.
Rolling Stone, March 18, 1992; October 1, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to Mojo Hand: The Lightnin’ Hopkins Anthology, by Greg Drust and Stephen K. Peeples, 1993.
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