Right at the zenith of the postwar rhythm and blues boom, when Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five were constructing a robust prototype for rock and roll's invention with their happy jumping jive and pianist Charles Brown was playing it cool with his mellow club blues and Amos Milburn, Roy Milton, Wynonie Harris, and Big Joe Turner were scorching jukebox speakers nationwide with their relentlessly swinging sax-leavened smashes, there was Lightnin' Hopkins-a true Texas blues troubadour-delivering his mournful Lone Star laments without the aid of anything or anyone but his own trusty guitar.
And that was all he needed, because musical trends didn't affect what Lightnin' did one iota.
From late 1946, when he memorably debuted on shellac via Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records, to his January 30, 1982 death in his beloved hometown of Houston (and the feeling was mutual, at least in his neighborhood), Sam Hopkins amassed one of the most daunting recorded legacies in the proud history of the blues. Usually insisting on laying down no more than one take of any selection, Hopkins spread his immense and prolific talent around in truly benevolent fashion, recording for a wealth of independent record labels during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s and even a couple of majors-in short, any budding mogul with a pocketful of up-front bucks could secure his services on an instantaneous basis.
Initially, Hopkins aimed his starkly elegant creations at the traditional R&B and blues demographic. Later, he reverted to his acoustic roots to cash in on the blossoming folk-blues boom of the early 1960s. But no matter whether he was starring in front of the homefolks at a sweaty Houston ghetto club the size of his living room or entertaining a young collegiate throng inside a spacious auditorium, Hopkins' stinging guitar licks and delightfully understated vocal delivery always stayed consistent and satisfying.
Born March 15, 1912 in Centerville, Texas (located approximately 100 miles north of Houston) and raised from age three by his widowed mother in nearby Leona, young Sam luckily had someone residing right under his family roof to teach him how to pick the lonesomest blues imaginable on a guitar-his older brother Joel. Like several other revered Texas blues icons, Hopkins had the good fortune to experience the immortal Blind Lemon Jefferson up close and in the flesh when he was a child, even playing a bit with him and impressing the respected blues emissary. That fateful encounter in Buffalo, Texas fueled the lad's resolve to follow in the older man's footsteps before much more time slipped by.
Along with absorbing all that he could from Blind Lemon's epochal visit, Hopkins was a cousin to powerful vocalist Alger "Texas" Alexander, who was 12 years older than Sam. Alexander began recording prolifically for OKeh Records in 1927, sometimes in the dazzling company of guitar master Lonnie Johnson, before moving over to Vocalion in '34. Hopkins and Alexander worked as a team throughout East Texas during the 1920s and '30s, the younger man steadily honing his chops behind his cousin's rafter-rattling if occasionally timing-challenged vocal delivery. Houston would endure in decades to come as Hopkins' homebase, especially the area bordering wide-open Dowling Street. A late '30s prison term-its cause unknown-- temporarily interrupted Hopkins' musical exploits, but he recovered sufficiently from the imposed confinement to resume playing his singular strain of deeply resonant Texas blues upon his release.
Considering that he was already well past his 30th birthday, Hopkins was sufficiently seasoned as a musician when he confronted his first real break. Lola Anne Cullum-the same sharp-eared talent scout that had recently introduced boogie piano pounder Amos Milburn to Aladdin Records bosses Eddie and Leo Mesner (Milburn would crank out a string of romping R&B hits for the label prior to the advent of rock and roll)--caught Hopkins' act on Dowling Street. Cullum induced Hopkins and Alexander to cut some demos that she sent out to her bosses on the coast. The Mesners were sufficiently impressed to invite both performers out to L.A. to get down to some serious business in the studio. But for some reason lost to the sands of time, Alexander ended up missing the trip, so Cullum replaced him with local barrelhouse pianist Wilson Smith.
Hopkins and Smith made their mutual studio debut at a November 9, 1946 Aladdin session held at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. That's apparently when the duo received their colorful sobriquets: "Thunder" was ostensibly connected to Smith's thunderous 88s attack, while a flash of "Lightnin'" certainly accompanied any burst of thunder. Like Alexander, who would fade out after cutting a 78 in 1950 for Houston-based Freedom Records, Thunder would recede from view after making four vocal numbers with Hopkins for Aladdin, three 1948 singles for Down Town Records, and two final salvos for Bill Quinn's locally based Gold Star logo the following year.
The newly dubbed Lightnin', however, was just getting started. That first seminal session at Radio Recorders produced "Katie Mae Blues," which would serve as his Aladdin debut single and set the table for many more that would soon follow. Hopkins' vivid lyrical metaphors (the object of his tender affection "walks like she's got oil wells in her backyard" and is later lovingly compared to a T-Model Ford) and intricate finger-picked guitar fills eloquently announced the arrival of a new blues giant whose throwback approach was nevertheless solidly in tune with the tastes of postwar blues record buyers. Over the course of the session, Smith's rolling ivories occasionally clashed with Hopkins' highly unpredictable sense of timing without causing serious harm; in years to come, Lightnin' would prove most effective performing in a solo setting.
The Mesner brothers must have realized Lightnin' was a special find, because they slated another coupling from the same session for Aladdin's very next 78 rpm offering. "Feel So Bad" retains the jaunty bounce of its better-known predecessor, guitarist Big Bill Broonzy's ebullient "I Feel So Good" (the urbane Broonzy waxed it in '41 for OKeh), though Lightnin' cleverly turned its lyrical focus inside out to render it an early example of what later became known as an answer song. "Rocky Mountain Blues" (aka "I Can't Stay Here In Your Town") finds Lightnin' meshing adroitly with Thunder's rippling 88s on a mid-tempo grinder.
Aladdin brought both men back to L.A. for an August 15, 1947 encore date, but this time the Mesners were confident enough in Lightnin's abilities to allow him plenty of time to record all by his lonesome. "Short Haired Woman" endures as one of the crucial entries in Lightnin's catalog, "poor Sam" bitching about the length (or lack thereof) of his girlfriend's coiffure and peeling off some truly lovely guitar filigrees under his amusing complaints. "Fast-Mail Rambler" is another gorgeous performance, Hopkins answering his mournful vocal lines (the death of his women was fast becoming a recurring lyrical theme) with complex guitar runs that provide a direct link to the work of his hero Blind Lemon.
On the other hand, Smith's rumbling 88s and an uncredited drummer help ramp the tempo of the torrid "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" up to a rock-and-rollish frenzy that Hopkins rarely attempted while tethered to Aladdin. He gets so excited midway through that he briefly forgets what key he's playing in at the beginning of one guitar solo, and when the song threatens to wind down prematurely, he pulls it back together through sheer force of will until he's good and ready to let it go. The ribald theme was originated by slide guitar-and-kazoo ace Hudson "Tampa Red" Whittaker in 1942 on the Bluebird logo, but the diminutive Chicagoan never lit into it anywhere near this fast.
For his next Aladdin session in November of '47, Lightnin' stayed close to home, recording at Bill Quinn's studio in Houston. Quinn didn't have to fuss much with microphone placement; the session dispensed with sidemen altogether and presented Hopkins in his preferred solo context for the plaintive "Woman Woman (Change Your Way)." On February 25, 1948, Hopkins entered another Houston facility, Commercial Studios, to lay down a slew of titles at another solo session, notably the sly "Sugar Mama" (aka "Sugar On My Mind") and the rollicking "Lightnin's Boogie," its dexterity no doubt delighting the guitar master's loyal Dowling Street following.
After experiencing regional success with his Aladdin output, Hopkins finally nailed a national hit for the firm with the menacing "Shotgun (Blues)," its threat of imminent armed violence enough to grab any listener's attention. Apparently recorded at the same marathon February 1948 session, the downbeat piece didn't find its way into Billboard's R&B charts until September of 1950, when it jumped to #5 during a four-week stay.
By that time, the nomadic Hopkins had already dented that same hit parade for two other record labels. Quinn was in charge of Hopkins' recorded output during this crucial period, and he divided his burgeoning stash of Lightnin' masters between his own Gold Star imprint, for whom Hopkins enjoyed a #8 hit in October of '49 with "T" Model Blues" (the same track also hit the streets on Bobby Shad's Sittin' in With logo), and other diskeries ostensibly boasting better distribution, notably the Bihari brothers' Los Angeles-based Modern Records.
Many Gold Star releases also came out on Modern, most notably "Tim Moore's Farm," a dangerously pointed protest song that was actually Hopkins' first national smash in early '49 (it peaked at #13). John Lee Hooker, another Modern star then in high demand, was concurrently engaging in a similarly frenzied barrage of label-hopping during those wild-and-woolly days of fiercely competing R&B indie labels, though Lightnin's avalanche of 78s at least retained his own moniker to make things slightly less baffling.
Plenty of splendid Hopkins product also emerged during the early '50s on Modern's RPM subsidiary after the Biharis purchased a reported 32 additional masters from Quinn for $2500 that hadn't previously been out on Gold Star. First on the market in late 1951 was the unremittingly sorrowful "Bad Luck And Trouble," Hopkins' vocal as dry and dusty as a sun-parched Texas prairie. The ever-resourceful Lightnin' made his axe howl like a forlorn canine on "Lonesome Dog Blues," issued by RPM in 1952, but its opposite side was anything but down-and-out: "Jake Head Boogie" was a delightful romp filled with dazzling licks and a paucity of lyrics.
RPM dug a little deeper into its stash of Hopkins acquisitions later that year for the brooding "Last Affair," and kept issuing fresh product on him in 1953 with a similarly back-in-the-alley "Another Fool In Town," the timeless quality of Lightnin's artistry ensuring that these aging masters had never gone out of style. Hopkins apparently based his incendiary "Black Cat" on Little Son Joe's 1941 OKeh waxing of "Black Rat Swing," Lightnin' turning up the burners to the scorching point.
As late as 1954, RPM was still trying to notch another hit with its cache of Hopkins platters; the laidback "Santa Fe" was their last attempt before throwing in the towel. But Lightnin's only hits during this timeframe were on Shad's Sittin' in With imprint: "Give Me Central 209" (aka "Hello Central") and "Coffee Blues" were identical #6 sellers a month apart in early 1952. Lightnin' waxed a sizable body of work for Shad as well as waxing a few sides for the considerably better-connected Mercury Records in '51 and Decca in '53.
The driving beat of rhythm and blues and its bastard offspring rock and roll was sweeping the nation in 1954 when Hopkins connected with Herald Records. Though the label was located in New York, Lightnin' utilized studio facilities in Houston for his mammoth batch of Herald waxings, fortifying his already formidable attack by incorporating a blistering rhythm section that knew instinctively how to follow Hopkins instead of forcing him into a 12-bar straitjacket. Best of all, Lightnin' cranked his amp up to 11 and let fly with the most raucous platters of his career; "Hopkins Sky Hop" achieves a manic energy level that even Little Richard might have envied.
Unfortunately, like so many of his peers, Hopkins wasn't fated to cash in on the rise of rock and roll, even though these blues and R&B pioneers played a gargantuan role in its birth (leather-lunged Kansas City shouter Big Joe Turner was one of the few blues vets who did successfully make the leap to the teen market). After a pair of obscure '55 singles for Bob Tanner's San Antonio-based TNT logo and one more in '57 for Henry Stone's Miami-headquartered Chart label, Hopkins receded from the spotlight except for back home, where his highly danceable brand of blues always drew a crowd. But this proved to be just a temporary lull.
On a January day in 1959, musicologist Sam Charters tracked the elusive Hopkins down on his home turf, found him an acoustic guitar (Lightnin's own axe was temporarily locked down in a nearby pawn shop), and captured an album's worth of downhome solo material for posterity with a hand-held microphone in Hopkins' own small rented room. That humble collection jump-started Lightnin's career, albeit propelling him in the direction of an entirely new demographic. The folk-blues boom was a-borning, and while Lightnin's prolific resume didn't stretch back quite as far as, say, that of a Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, or Skip James, he had no problem whatsoever attracting eager college students and other fresh-faced youngsters to his mesmerizing concerts.
Not everything Hopkins recorded during this era fell into the folk-blues bag. In November of 1960, during an extraordinarily bountiful visit to New York that saw him make albums for two other labels as well (strike while the iron is hot and sweat the fine print in the contracts later was clearly Hopkins' motto), Lightnin' hooked up with Harlem producer Bobby Robinson's Fire Records for a memorable LP session primarily aimed at the guitarist's longtime R&B constituency. Among its highlights were the classic "Mojo Hand."
Scads of Hopkins albums graced the shelves as the decade progressed, a great many of them emerging on the Prestige/Bluesville, Arhoolie, or Verve/Folkways imprints. In 1965, Lightnin' inaugurated a recurring recording relationship with Stan Lewis' Shreveport, La.-based Jewel Records that resulted in some of the tougher band-backed albums of his later career.
Hopkins was a cool customer right to the end. When a badly chosen local rhythm section threatened to wreak havoc on his set at a late '70s outdoor concert in Chicago, he calmly dismissed them, sat back down, and played the remainder of his set solo, immediately reminding an appreciative throng of precisely why he was regarded for so long as a true blues immortal. Glittering against an eerie backdrop of Lake Michigan's unilluminated waters, Lightnin's blinding ice-cream suit added to his other-worldly aura as he seemingly pulled lyrical couplets right out of the starry nighttime skies above.
It's certain that Lightnin' Hopkins' singular brand of Lone Star blues won't come this way again, so cherish it here.