Lightnin' Hopkins - guitar, vocal; Long Gone Miles - harmonica; 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 20 different labels. A country blues artist of the highest caliber, who recorded more than 85 albums between his earliest recordings in 1946 to his death in 1982, Hopkins saw the blues genre change considerably over the course his career. However, he never strayed far from his trademark soulful and the 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 albums 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 and his protégé', Long Gone Miles, performing together before a very appreciative audience. Guitarist Bernie Pearl also adds tasteful lead guitar to the proceedings. Although the harmonica playing of Long Gone Miles is at times relentlessly busy, occasionally detracting from the powerful impact of Hopkins, this is a wonderful performance that captures Hopkins' considerable powers near the peak of his popularity.
The set begins with "Baby Please Don't Go," a classic Louisiana blues song first recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935. One of the most popular of the early 20th century blues, this number immediately displays Hopkins' style of guitar playing, deeply rooted in Texas blues with a subtle arpeggio alternated with accented bass notes. Over the course of the next hour or so, Hopkins proves what an astonishingly adept and inventive guitar player he is on both original songs as well as a diverse choice of covers. From classic originals like "Mojo Hand" and "The Rub" to adventurous covers of Ray Charles' "What I Say" and Richard Jones' "Trouble In Mind," Hopkins proves that he is the truest example of Blind Lemon Jefferson's rural Texas tradition. In retrospect, much of Hopkins' music can now be heard as blazing a path for the darker, heavier Delta-based blues sounds of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.
Of all the great blues singers, Hopkins was unique in that he was less interested in storytelling than setting a mood and relaying whatever happened to be on his mind at the time. Some of the most compelling material featured in this performance displays Hopkins as a sly, inventive lyricist, adept at improvising lyrics on the spot. Hopkins' witty knack for lyrical improvisation is all over this recording, proving that he could bring a relevant immediacy or a sense of humor to almost any situation at will, which no doubt endeared him to many an audience. Prime examples include "The Woman I'm Loving, She's Taking My Appetite," "How Many More Years I Gotta Let You Dog Me Around" and the unknown track five, which has a lyrical basis in the county/bluegrass standard "Going To The Races," but includes spontaneous lines from many other songs as well. Throughout the course of the set, Hopkins reveals seemingly opposite facets of his personality, with songs often alternating from serious, strong, or depressed to whimsical, fragile, or boasting. Despite this contrast, Hopkins' down-home blues have a consistency that is superbly suited to his own style, whether the song is slow or fast, solo or accompanied.
Although subsequent bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King have created standards that are more easily identified, Hopkins' influence cannot be overestimated. Hopkins had a profound impact on San Francisco musicians, with the Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen and the Grateful Dead front man, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, both being prime examples, but his reach also can be heard in music decades apart, such as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain (Nirvana fans should listen to "Let's Do The Twist" for the most obvious recognition).
Many of Hopkins' trademark riffs have become clichés in the hands of subsequent practitioners, but here they maintain a fresh vibrancy that can only be relayed by the master himself. Largely a result of Hopkins' work, the deep gripping sounds of raw country blues continued beyond the 1950s and endure to the present day.
Written by Alan Bershaw