Born: March 15, 1912 in Centerville TX
Died: January 30, 1982 in Houston TX
Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was one of the most influential blues guitarists to come out of the state of Texas. A country-styled bluesman that often performed solo, Hopkins' unique finger-picked guitar style would alternate single-note leads with rhythm and bass guitar, adding percussive elements by slapping or tapping his guitar body. A prolific songwriter whose lyrics chronicled life in the South, romantic turmoil, and bawdy sexual themes, Hopkins' vocals mixed a soulful voice with a talking blues style.
Hopkins' extensive body of recorded work and dynamic live performances would influence a generation of guitarists to follow, from bluesmen like Buddy Guy and Albert Collins to blues-rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Hopkins was also a major influence on country-folk singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and would land at #71 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."
Born in Texas in 1912, Hopkins would learn to play the guitar from his brother, Joel, also a blues musician. The young Hopkins' interest in blues music began at the early age of eight after meeting Texas blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. A few years later Hopkins would serve as the blind bluesman's guide and apprentice.
While in his teens, Hopkins hooked up with his cousin, bluesman Alger "Texas" Alexander, and the pair travelled across East Texas playing house parties and picnics. Sometime during the mid-1930s, Hopkins was arrested for some unknown (and possible specious) offense and would be sent to the Houston County Prison Farm for a while.
The Aladdin Years
Released from the prison farm, Hopkins once again began playing with Alexander on street corners and nightclubs in Houston, sometimes venturing into Mississippi and other Southern states to perform at parties and juke-joints. In 1946, Hopkins was discovered in Houston by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for Aladdin Records. Cullum offered the veteran bluesman the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to record for the label. In L.A. Hopkins was paired with pianist Wilson Smith; the pair were subsequently dubbed "Lightnin'" and "Thunder" by an Aladdin executive.
With Smith on the ivories, Hopkins recorded "Katie May," his first regional hit. Other hits would follow: "Shotgun Blues," "Short Haired Woman," and "Abilene," among others. During his short tenure with Aladdin, Hopkins recorded a total of forty-three songs during two lengthy sessions in 1946 and '47. He would return to Houston, however, subsequently recording sides for the Gold Star label even while he was still signed to Aladdin, sometimes re-recording the same songs in Texas that he had waxed in California.
The Real Folk Blues
During the 1950s, Hopkins recorded prolifically, a flurry of songs like "Tim Moore's Farm," "T-Model Blues," "Coffee Blues," and "Lightnin's Boogie" charting for both indie labels like Gold Star, Sittin' In With, and Modern/RPM as well as majors like Decca and Mercury Records. During his lengthy career, Hopkins recorded nearly 1,000 songs for some 20 different labels, making his discography one of the deepest and most complicated in blues music history.
By the late-1950s, popular interest in the sort of country blues that were Hopkins' trademark had largely given way to the electric blues of Chicago artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Folklorist Mack McCormick tracked Hopkins down in Houston and he was re-invented as a "folk blues" artist. Producer Sam Charters recorded Hopkins in his living room for the ground-breaking The Roots of Lightnin' Hopkins album for Folkways, which introduced the bluesman to an entirely different audience.
Following the success of his 1960 song "Mojo Hand," Hopkins went from playing back-alley dives in Houston to performing on the stage of Carnegie Hall alongside artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Throughout the 1960s and well into the '70s, Hopkins performed - usually solo - on college campuses, folk clubs, and coffee houses. Hopkins toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964 with Howlin' Wolf, and would later tour Japan during the late-1970s.
Lightnin's Later Years
Hopkins' popularity with white audiences would grow during the 1960s, and by the end of the decade he was performing at rock festivals and in clubs with bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Filmmaker Les Blank created his 1967 documentary, The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins about the bluesman. In 1968, Hopkins recorded Free Form Patterns backed by the rhythm section of the Texas psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators.
Through the last years of his life, Hopkins would record for almost any label that would pay, demanding cash up front before he'd plug in and play. Hopkins would usually only lay down a single take of any song, regardless of the producer's request, and his unique instrumental style often confused even the most seasoned session musician. Hopkins was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and passed away from cancer in 1982.
Recommended Albums: As stated earlier, Hopkins' extensive discography - close to 100 albums, including many of questionable legality (and quality) - makes it difficult for the collector to track down everything. Compilations are the way to go here, the budget-priced, two-disc The Complete Aladdin Recordings offering up 43 smokin' Hopkins sides from the 1940s. Rhino Records' Mojo Hand anthology features 41 songs on two CDs from Hopkins' work for labels like Aladdin, Gold Star, Herald and others from the 1940s through the '60s.