Lightnin' Hopkins - electric guitar, vocals
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, he recorded more than 85 albums between between his earliest recordings in 1946 to his death in 1982, seeing 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; 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.
A frequent performer at Los Angeles' legendary Ash Grove, this recording captures Hopkins' considerable powers near the peak of his popularity. Unlike many of the recordings from this era, here Hopkins performs on electric amplified guitar. Despite the brevity of the recording, Hopkins is in great form here and this will provide listeners a fine example of the idiosyncratic fingering that has influenced so many guitar players while confounding just as many more. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of Hopkins' ability to connect with an audience and although the technical brilliance of his guitar playing is certainly conveyed here, it is often the dramatic intensity of his singing, the way he projects his emotions into a vocal, that makes this set so compelling.
The recording begins with a forceful reading of "So Sorry To Leave You." Of all the great blues singers, Hopkins was unique in that he was less interested in storytelling than setting a mood and this opener is a fine example. Announced as a "warm-up song," an unidentified instrumental follows and it's a fascinating glimpse of Hopkins on solo electric guitar. Similar to "Baby, Please Don't Go" (which is performed as the set closer here), this instrumental is a textbook amalgamation of Hopkins' trademark riffs. Many of these same 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.
Just prior to the next song, a humorous sequence occurs where Hopkins solicits some technical assistance, as his guitar amplifier has stopped functioning. A humorous example of much simpler times in the development of sound reinforcement, this is soon remedied by simply plugging the amp's power cord back into the wall socket! Up and running again, the highlight of this set follows with a fantastic reading of "Last Night I Lost The Best Friend I Ever Had." This amped up version contains several expressive guitar breaks as well as a deeply penetrating vocal.
Hopkins irreverent and sly wit comes across next as he pontificates on the topic of preachers and religion. Conveying a healthy skepticism for both, this little monologue is quite amusing and gives listeners a glimpse into Hopkins' personality. This is a man unafraid to speak his mind on stage and his sense of comedic timing is well developed. The gist of this monologue is that preachers are after the same thing everyone else is after - MONEY. For each potentially controversial statement, Hopkins adds a disclaimer, but after doing so, drives his original point home with a well-timed zinger - in this case summarizing that he is "only telling it like it is."
The recording concludes with a strong reading of "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 is a fine display of Hopkins style of guitar playing, deeply rooted in Texas blues with a subtle arpeggio alternated with accented bass notes. Over the course of this number, Hopkins proves what an adept and inventive guitar player he is, playing both rhythm and lead and improvising most effectively.
This is exactly what so many folk and blues guitar players coming of age in the 1960s heard when they caught Hopkins' live performances. As such, one need not look far to hear his influence. From guitar icons like Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Jorma Kaukonen and Duane Allman right up to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and beyond, Hopkins' root sound carries on. This recording conveys Hopkins' musicianship and sense of humor as well as any recording from this era. Largely a result of Hopkins' work, the gripping sounds of raw country blues continued beyond the 1950s and endure to the present day.
-Written by Alan Bershaw