Lightnin' Hopkins - 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 20 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. 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 remarkably clear and intimate recording captures Lightnin' Hopkins performing solo before a very appreciative audience in May of 1965. The set includes a choice selection of stellar material that displays Hopkins' unique form of country blues. From the swampy Louisiana-style blues of the set opening "Baby Please Don't Go" to the set-closing homage to Ray Charles, Hopkins captivates the Ash Grove audience with his astonishingly adept and inventive guitar playing and witty knack for lyrical improvisation. 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 coffeehouse 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.
Playing to a packed house, Hopkins kicks things off with the classic Louisiana-style blues of "Baby Please Don't Go." His uninhibited style of singing is undeniably expressive here and a key ingredient at infusing his personality into every song of this set. His guitar work is superb, clearly displaying his remarkable ability to play rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. The "Mean Old Twister" to follow heads into more ominous territory as Hopkins "prays for his life" in this country blues tornado tale. Again, Hopkins' guitar playing is fascinating as he plays incredibly expressive leads, while maintaining a strong propulsive bass line throughout. Hopkins returns to the sounds of Louisiana by next offering up one of his signature songs, "Mojo Hand," utilizing a boogie-style arrangement that is literally a blueprint for countless other songs to emerge in the next decade.
Hopkins' take on Richard Jones' classic "Trouble In Mind," features the most laidback groove of this set, which allows the listener to more easily appreciate the nuances of his finger picking style, where he proves to be a master of dynamics. This particular aspect of Hopkins' had a profound impact on guitar players like Jorma Kaukonen, and the root sound of early Hot Tuna and many other subsequent artists can clearly be heard here. In direct contrast, the next song, "Ain't It Crazy (The Rub)," is another boogie-style romp, featuring one of Hopkins' most humorous and infectious lyrics. Again, Hopkins takes extraordinarily nuanced solos, while never letting go of the rhythmic pulse. This is a prime example of Hopkins effectively incorporating rhythm, bass, lead, and even percussive elements simultaneously.
By popular request from the audience, Hopkins concludes this set with "Me And Ray Charles," where he creates a musical dialogue between himself and Ray Charles, primarily based on Charles' 1959 blueprint for Soul Music, "What'd I Say." One can sense Hopkins' own amusement while performing this number as well as an audience that is fully engaged in the performance. His propulsive guitar playing is nothing short of superb here and Hopkins makes it all sound deceptively simple as he vacillates between Charles' classic tune and a reprise of his own "Baby Please Don't Go," which serves to bookend this remarkable set.
Written by Alan Bershaw