Lightnin' Hopkins - vocals, guitar
Of all the Texas blues men, none were more prolific or influential 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 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 Aladdin 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 Aladdin 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 an appreciative audience in May of 1965. This set not only includes a choice selection of stellar country blues material, but the intimacy and familiarity of the Ash Grove inspires Hopkins' sense of humor. He is obviously quite comfortable and humorous stage banter, as well as funny interjections into his songs, abound. For anyone interested in Hopkins' personality as well as his music, look no further as this set conveys plenty of both.
The set opens with "Long Way From Home," with Hopkins immediately captivating the Ash Grove audience with his astonishingly adept and inventive guitar playing and witty knack for lyrical improvisation. With one of the most basic blues themes at its heart, jealousy, Hopkins freely borrows familiar lines from several other songs to suit his purposes and seemingly makes up his own as he goes along. This sense of spontaneity permeates the entire set, despite many of the songs being decades-old. Hopkins ability to never play a song the same way twice is a testament to his creativity and a big part of his appeal as a performer. This also made Hopkins a difficult person to accompany, but this elastic approach to performing his songs was a lasting influence on subsequent performers, with Bob Dylan being the most obvious example. Throughout this set, one can clearly hear how strong an influence Hopkins was on both blues and rock forms, including 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 Hopkin's 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 Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen all deeply influenced by Hopkins.
The set continues with Hopkins in hilarious form, chatting up the girls in the audience, before continuing with a variation on "I Don't Like To Travel." His uninhibited style of singing on this song, and "Mr. Charlie" which follows, is undeniably expressive and another key ingredient at infusing his personality into every song. His guitar work is also superb with adeptness for playing rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. A lengthy monologue about a stuttering childhood friend of Hopkins that inspires the lyrics to "Mr. Charlie" also precedes the song. Clocking in at nearly twice the length of the song itself, this monologue is just as entertaining as the song itself.
The set wraps up with two of the most significant songs of Hopkins' career. First is "Short Haired Woman," the first song he recorded for the Gold Star label and his first recording on electric amplified guitar. This song not only scored him a national R&B hit in 1948, but also arguably paved the way for where country-blues would head after World War II. Stripped down to just voice and guitar, this song loses none of its raw energy, and the intimate nature of the performance presents more opportunities for Hopkins' humorous side to surface. (Note to listeners: The word "rats" in the lyrics refers to artificial hairpieces, common African-American slang of the era.) Hopkins concludes the set with "Katie Mae," the song that started his recording career for Alladin Records, originally cut in 1946. Establishing a call-and-response between his lyric lines and his single string guitar lines, this is one of Hopkins favorite songs and one he sang often throughout his career, chock full of metaphors related to cars and sexual innuendo.
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.
Written by Alan Bershaw