Lightnin' Hopkins

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Lightnin' Hopkins
Lightnin' Hopkins.jpg
Background information
Birth nameSam John Hopkins
Born(1912-03-15)March 15, 1912
Centerville, Texas, U.S.
DiedJanuary 30, 1982(1982-01-30) (aged 69)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Genres Electric blues, country blues, Texas blues
Occupation(s)Guitarist, singer-songwriter
InstrumentsGuitar, piano, organ, vocals
Years active1946–1982
Labels Aladdin, Modern, RPM, Gold Star, Sittin' in With/Jax, Mercury, Decca, Herald, Folkways, World Pacific, Vee-Jay, Arhoolie, Bluesville, Tradition, Fire, Candid, Imperial, Prestige, Verve, Jewel

Samuel John "Lightnin'" Hopkins (March 15, 1912 – January 30, 1982) [1] was an American country blues singer, songwriter, guitarist and occasional pianist, from Centerville, Texas. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 71 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. [2]


The musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick opined that Hopkins is "the embodiment of the jazz-and-poetry spirit, representing its ancient form in the single creator whose words and music are one act". [3]


Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, [4] and as a child was immersed in the sounds of the blues. He developed a deep appreciation for this music at the age of 8, when he met Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic in Buffalo, Texas. [5] That day, Hopkins felt the blues was "in him".[ citation needed ] He went on to learn from his older (distant) cousin, the country blues singer Alger "Texas" Alexander. [5] (Hopkins had another cousin, the Texas electric blues guitarist Frankie Lee Sims, with whom he later recorded. [6] ) Hopkins began accompanying Jefferson on guitar at informal church gatherings. Jefferson reputedly never let anyone play with him except young Hopkins, and Hopkins learned much from Jefferson at these gatherings.

In the mid-1930s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm; the offense for which he was imprisoned is unknown. [5] In the late 1930s, he moved to Houston with Alexander in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the music scene there. By the early 1940s, he was back in Centerville, working as a farm hand.

Hopkins took a second shot at Houston in 1946. While singing on Dowling Street in Houston's Third Ward (which would become his home base), he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum of Aladdin Records, based in Los Angeles. [5] She convinced Hopkins to travel to Los Angeles, where he accompanied the pianist Wilson Smith. The duo recorded twelve tracks in their first sessions in 1946. An Aladdin executive decided the pair needed more dynamism in their names and dubbed Hopkins "Lightnin'" and Wilson "Thunder".

Gold Star promotional photograph, 1948 Hopkins-Goldstar-Promo.jpg
Gold Star promotional photograph, 1948

Hopkins recorded more sides for Aladdin in 1947. He returned to Houston and began recording for Gold Star Records. In the late 1940s and 1950s he rarely performed outside Texas, only occasionally traveling to the Midwest and the East for recording sessions and concert appearances. It has been estimated that he recorded between eight hundred and a thousand songs in his career. He performed regularly at nightclubs in and around Houston, particularly on Dowling Street, where he had been discovered by Aladdin. He recorded the hit records "T-Model Blues" and "Tim Moore's Farm" at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston. By the mid- to late 1950s, his prodigious output of high-quality recordings had gained him a following among African Americans and blues aficionados.[ citation needed ]

In 1959, the blues researcher Mack McCormick contacted Hopkins, hoping to bring him to the attention of a broader musical audience engaged in the folk revival. [5] McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences first in Houston and then in California. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960, alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, performing the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep". In 1960, he signed with Tradition Records. The recordings which followed included his song "Mojo Hand" in 1960.

In 1968, Hopkins recorded the album Free Form Patterns, backed by the rhythm section of the psychedelic rock band 13th Floor Elevators. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, he released one or sometimes two albums a year and toured, playing at major folk music festivals and at folk clubs and on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally. He toured extensively in the United States [3] and played a six-city tour of Japan in 1978.

Hopkins was Houston's poet-in-residence for 35 years. He recorded more albums than any other bluesman. [3]

Hopkins died of esophageal cancer in Houston on January 30, 1982, at the age of 69. His obituary in the New York Times described him as "one of the great country blues singers and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players." [7]

His Gibson J-160e "hollowbox" is on display at the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and his Guild Starfire at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC, both on loan from the Joe Kessler collection.

Musical style

Hopkins's style was born from spending many hours playing informally without a backing band. His distinctive fingerstyle technique often included playing, in effect, bass, rhythm, lead, and percussion at the same time.[ citation needed ] He played both "alternating" and "monotonic" bass styles incorporating imaginative, often chromatic turnarounds and single-note lead lines. Tapping or slapping the body of his guitar added rhythmic accompaniment.

Much of Hopkins's music follows the standard 12-bar blues template, but his phrasing was free and loose. Many of his songs were in the talking blues style, but he was a powerful and confident singer.[ citation needed ] Lyrically, his songs expressed the problems of life in the segregated South, bad luck in love and other subjects common in the blues idiom. He dealt with these subjects with humor and good nature. Many of his songs are filled with double entendres, and he was known for his humorous introductions to songs.[ citation needed ]

Some of his songs were of warning and sour prediction, such as "Fast Life Woman":

You may see a fast life woman sittin' round a whiskey joint,
Yes, you know, she'll be sittin' there smilin',
'Cause she knows some man gonna buy her half a pint,
Take it easy, fast life woman, 'cause you ain't gon' live always... [3]

A statue of Hopkins sits in Crockett, Texas. [8]

Hopkins is mentioned in Erykah Badu's 2010 "Window Seat": "I don't want to time-travel no more, I want to be here. On this porch I'm rockin', back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins."

R.E.M. included the song "Lightnin' Hopkins" on their 1987 album Document .

Hopkins's song "Back to New Orleans (Baby Please Don't Go)" was performed by the fictional country singer Cherlene in the FX television comedy Archer (season 5, episode 1).The rock band AC/DC also covered the song.


Early compilations of previously issued material

Original LP releases

As sideman

With Sonny Terry With George "Wild Child" Butler



See also

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<i>Lightnin</i> (album) 1961 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Lightnin' is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in 1960 and released on the Bluesville label the following year.

<i>Last Night Blues</i> 1961 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins with Sonny Terry

Last Night Blues is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins with Sonny Terry recorded in 1960 and released on the Bluesville label the following year.

<i>Lightnin and Co.</i> 1962 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Lightnin' and Co. is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in Texas in 1962 and released on the Bluesville label. The album was reissued as a double LP compilation with additional tracks from the sessions as How Many More Years I Got in 1981 on Fantasy Records.

<i>Lightnin Sam Hopkins</i> 1962 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Lightnin' Sam Hopkins is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in California in late 1961 and Texas in early 1962 and released on the Arhoolie label.

<i>Walkin This Road by Myself</i> 1962 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Walkin' This Road by Myself is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in Texas and released on the Bluesville label.

<i>Lightnin!</i> 1969 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Lightnin'! is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in California in 1969, and originally released on the Poppy label as a double LP.

<i>Po Lightnin</i> 1983 compilation album by Lightnin Hopkins

Po' Lightnin' is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins recorded in California in 1969 and originally released on the Arhoolie label in 1983.

<i>Early Recordings Vol. 2</i> 1971 studio album by Lightnin Hopkins

Early Recordings Vol. 2 is an album by blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins featuring tracks recorded at Gold Star Recording Studios between 1946 and 1950, thirteen of which were originally released as 10-inch 78rpm records on the Gold Star and Dart labels, along with three others that were previously unissued. Arhoolie reissued The Gold Star Sessions on two CDs through Smithsonian Folkways in 1990.


Inline citations
  1. Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 294. ISBN   978-0313344237.
  2. "Lightnin' Hopkins | Rolling Stone Music | Lists". Retrieved 2010-08-09.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 64. ISBN   1-85868-255-X.
  4. Nicholas, A. X. (1973). Woke Up This Mornin': Poetry of the Blues. Bantam Books. p. 87.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Allmusic biography
  6. Dahl, Bill. "Frankie Lee Sims: Biography". Retrieved 2010-10-19.
  7. Saxon, Wolfgang (February 1, 1982). "Obituary: Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins, 69; Blues Singer and Guitarist". New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  8. Russell, pp. 145–146.
Further reading