Lightnin' Hopkins - guitar, vocals; Bernie Pearl - guitar
Of all the influential Texas blues men, none were more prolific than Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, who over the course of his career, recorded for nearly twenty different labels. A country blues artist of the highest caliber, who between his earliest recordings in 1946 to his death in 1982 recorded more than 85 albums, Hopkins saw the blues genre change considerably over the course his career. However, he never strayed far from his trademark soulful and mournful sound that he perfected on both acoustic and electric guitar. Hopkins' intricate boogie riffs resonated with musicians and fans alike and his seemingly boundless ability for lyrical improvisation made nearly every live performance a unique experience. This penchant for spontaneous creativity gave his performances a sense of immediacy and relevance unlike many of his peers and endeared him to audiences everywhere he went. Hopkins popularity would wax and wane over the course of nearly five decades of recording, but he remains an essential influence on American music and has inspired countless musicians with his style and originality.
Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas in 1912, one of Abe and Frances Hopkins' six children. Upon the death of his father, when Hopkins was three years old, his mother relocated the family to Leona. By age eight, Hopkins made his first cigar-box guitar and within two years was performing locally with his brothers John Henry and Joel. In 1920, Hopkins met the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson at a social function and struck up a friendship. Still a teenager, Hopkins also began working with his cousin, singer Texas Alexander and both Alexander and Jefferson would provide the early encouragement that would begin fueling his ambition. Hopkins musical partnership with his cousin was interrupted by a mid-1930s sentencing to the Houston County Prison Farm, but upon his release, Hopkins reunited with Alexander. In 1946, while performing as a duo, they caught the ear of Alladin Records talent scout, Lola Anne Cullum. Uninterested in Alexander, Callum's vision was to introduce Hopkins to pianist Wilson "Thunder" Smith, recreate Hopkins as "Lightnin'" and have "Thunder & Lightnin'" become Alladin recording artists. Hopkins and Smith's debut recording, "Katie Mae" was cut on November 9, 1946 and saw immediate regional success.
Hopkins recorded prolifically during the next few years, even scoring a national hit with "Shotgun Blues." Over the course of the next decade, he would record for many different labels, both as a solo artist and with a small rhythm section. In 1954, Hopkins recorded a remarkably influential batch of songs for the Herald label, where he was captured playing aggressive electric guitar. Along with drummer Ben Turner and bassist Donald Cook, the trio blasted through a series of up-tempo rockers that were groundbreaking in their ferocity. Far too aggressive for the times, the importance of these recordings would take another decade to be fully appreciated and by the end of the 1950s, Hopkins found himself back in Houston, with little promise of further pursuing a recording career.
It was right at this time (1960) that Hopkins encountered the music researcher Mack McCormick, who along with Chris Strachwitz, was in the process of launching the California-based record label Arhoolie. They presented Hopkins as a folk-blues artist; a role he was destined to play. That same year, pioneering ethnomusicologist Sam Charters recorded Hopkins in his tiny apartment, using a borrowed guitar, resulting in an album for the higher profile Folkways Records label. The resulting album introduced Hopkins to a new generation of listeners and re-launched his career. Soon, Hopkins was performing before white audiences on college campuses and touring extensively. Television appearances and an early-1960s appearance at New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall, alongside Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, raised his profile considerably and his career really took off. He recorded prolifically throughout the next decade, releasing highly influential releases for World Pacific, Vee-Jay, Candid, Arhoolie, Prestige, and Verve, to name but a few. Switching back to acoustic guitar, Hopkins had become one of the shining lights of the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.
A frequent performer at Los Angeles' legendary Ash Grove, this recording captures Lightnin' Hopkins on a double bill that also featured fellow Texan, Mance Lipscomb performing before a very appreciative audience. This is a definitive performance that captures Hopkins' considerable powers near the peak of his popularity. This recording is also notable for the inclusion of a young Bernie Pearl, who accompanies Hopkins throughout the set. Pearl (brother of Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl) took up guitar in the 1950s. Through his affiliation with the venue, he was able to study blues guitar directly with Hopkins as well as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Brownie McGhee and Mance Lipscomb, among the others who regularly frequented the Ash Grove. Pearl provides empathetic leads that greatly enhance this set, while displaying a control and restraint that never overshadows Hopkins' vocal or acoustic guitar playing. The blues is primarily a vocal based form, and Pearl pays close attention to Hopkins throughout, consistently achieving the perfect complimentary sound.
Sounding exactly like the music that fueled the classic John Lee Hooker song "Dimples," (also later covered by the Allman Brothers Band) the engaging instrumental that opens this set displays the unique chemistry between Hopkins and Pearl right off the bat. From this to the set closing "Walk On," Hopkins captivates the Ash Grove audience with his astonishingly adept and inventive guitar playing and witty knack for lyrical improvisation.
Following the instrumental opener, the Ash Grove audience is treated to a fantastic reading of the swampy Louisiana style blues of "Baby Please Don't Go," featuring Hopkins uninhibited style of singing. He is undeniably expressive here and along with the familiar lyrics Hopkins includes snippets of "Another Man Done Gone" as the mood strikes him. This ability of improvising lyrics and interchanging lyrics from one song to another is a key ingredient at infusing Hopkins' personality into every song he sings.
The propulsive cooker, "Baby, Shake That Thing" follows, preceded by a hilarious monologue about Hopkins' brother John and his ongoing battle of wits with his rather large wife that displays Hopkins irreverent sense of humor. Next is another delightful instrumental in the form of "Oh Lucille," which displays Hopkins' extremely impressive finger-picking technique, as well as the natural chemistry with Pearl.
Not to be confused with other songs bearing the same title, the slow burning "Rocky Mountain Blues" is a Hopkins original that captures a real sense of escaping impending disaster. The lyrics are psychologically challenging with one verse fearful and dreading how dangerous the Rocky Mountains are and the next stating that's exactly where he longs to be. This is followed by yet another instrumental exercise that features Hopkins and Pearl in improvisational mode and is perhaps the best example of Pearl reacting to Hopkins. Hopkins totally propels the piece initially, but once they get going, both musicians trigger each other and the interaction is nothing less than fascinating. Listeners take note of Pearl's solo here, which cleverly incorporates "When The Saints Go Marching In" into the propulsive display.
At this point, a woman in the audience requests "You Is One Black Rat," a song Hopkins states he hasn't played in nine years! This song also reveals a bit more of his personality as he clearly accepts this unexpected request as a challenge and then proceeds to show off with dazzling guitar work and a totally superb performance overall. Hopkins follows this by returning to the sounds of Louisiana by offering up his signature song, "Mojo Hand," utilizing a boogie-style arrangement that is literally a blueprint for countless other songs to emerge in the next decade. Throughout this set, one can clearly detect the root sound that so captivated groups like John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, the Stones, and countless others to follow, fueling the 1960s British Blues boom. One can also detect Hopkins' influence on the folk and blues scene germinating in San Francisco around this time, with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead's Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and particularly Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen all deeply influenced by Hopkins.
Hopkins and Pearl wind things up with a romp through "The Rub," featuring one of Hopkins most infectious lyrics before closing the set appropriately enough, with "Walk On."
Recorded during the prime blues revival era of the 1960s, this is exactly what countless folk and blues guitar players coming of age in the early to mid-1960s heard when they caught Hopkins live performances. As such, one need not look far to hear Hopkins influence. From 1960s guitar icons like Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, Jorma Kaukonen, and Duane Allman right up to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and beyond, Hopkins' root sound carries on.
Written by Alan Bershaw