Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins
"I just mostly smoke and drink beer these days" - Lightnin' Hopkins in 1980
Sam Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas on March 15th 1912. One of three brothers Sam would soon be making his first guitar out of a cigar box with chicken wire strings. The Hopkins had three sons that would all become prominent bluesmen in their lives, John Henry, Joel, and the youngest Sam. Decades later, Hopkins would make an album with his brothers.
After the tragic death of his father Abe Hopkins, his mother moved them to Leona, Texas were Sam took it upon himself to learn how to be a bluesman. Later he would say, "nobody taught me, I just see how they do it and then I do it my own way. Make my own songs."
At the age of eight, Sam did have a very good teacher, Blind Lemon Jefferson. A bluesman of great renown and talent. Soon he was blind Lemon Jefferson's "guide" leading him around town, listening to him play, and learning from the older master. After two years as Jefferson's guide Hopkins formed his first duo with another great Texas player, Alger "Texas" Alexander, a piano player and Hopkins cousin. Also, he continued to play with his brothers.
In his teenage years Hopkins would play dice, jump trains, and play the blues anywhere there was a place to. Although, it is unknown what led Hopkins to become a convict in the Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-30s, Hopkins later claimed that he was accused of killing a good friend.
In 1937 Hopkins was released from prison after the judge that convicted him heard him sing "How bad and how sad to be a fool". Hopkins was soon a regular on Dowling Street in Houston's Third Ward where he lived, and could be seen in the honkytonks of West Dallas Street where he earned money playing guitar. While in Houston he met and married Antoinette Charles. After the ceremony Hopkins said, "I've been married nine times, but only once with holding hands and all in front of a preacher. Them others, they'd just be around".
In 1946, Lola Anne Cullum, a scout for Aladdin Records of Los Angeles, heard Sam in Houston and arranged a meeting. Within months Hopkins was signed and working with Wilson "Thunder" Smith, a pianist, on their first album for Aladdin. The label dubbed them "Thunder and Lightnin'". For the rest of his life Sam would be known as "Lightnin' Hopkins"
The release of the first record was a limited success. In 1946 Aladdin released Hopkins first solo album "Katie May", which was a regional hit with several great tunes, including Shotgun Blues, Short Haired Woman, Abilene and Big Mama Jump.
Ironically he would record for Aladdin 47 times, and at least 22 other record labels in his lifetime. Notably he recorded for Modern/RPM, Gold Star, Mercury, Jax, Decca, Herald, Candid, Arhoolie, Prestige, Verve, Jewel, World Pacific, Bluesville, Fire and Vee-Jay. Hopkins, known for his mesmerizing talent of producing quality material through improvisation, blew through recordings and could easily write, arrange, and record an album "...or two, depending on how tired I was from the night before" in just one day.
Hopkins spent the 1950s in Houston, recording, touring, and playing local joints. Mainstream success didn't come until 1959. Hopkins was playing the Houston streets when he was "discovered" by Mack McCormick, who represented Folkway Records. McCormick got Hopkins and legendary Folkway producer Sam Charter together. The groundbreaking album was actually recorded in Hopkins apartment using a borrowed guitar.
Hopkins soon was huge in the folk-blues revival of the 1960s, playing with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and other greats of the era. A young Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, at the time a teenager playing in a band called, "The Moving Sidewalks" watched him play and muttered, "He doesn't even know when to change chords." Unaware that Hopkins was standing directly behind him, Hopkins in good humor said, "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' want to."
The Godfather of Houston bluesmen, he recorded with the 13th Floor Elevators, and humbly waited his turn when making impromptu appearances at local jam sessions.
By 1969 he was opening at the Houston Coliseum for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. While the 70s were moving forward Hopkins was playing Europe, and even for Queen Elizabeth II at a command performance. The 70s were good to Hopkins. In 1970 a documentary was made about his life called, "The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins" which received many awards. In 1972 he appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and on the soundtrack to the film Sounder.
For the next decade his life wound down. He was considered in the blues world as the greatest living bluesman, until his death of cancer on January 30th, 1982.
Hopkins is an institution among bluesman, his work full of beautifully moving material and deep articulate words. In his life he life he recorded over 87 albums, most of which are considered classics, not of one era of music, but of several. In retrospect Hopkins lived like no other man, smoking, drinking, but remaining true to his wife. Lightnin' was a man that a person could respect, but I'm not saying that, I never met him. History says that. (Jason Miller)