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 the 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, 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 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 recording captures Lightnin' Hopkins on a double bill that also featured fellow Texan, Mance Lipscomb (also available here at Wolfgang's), performing before a very appreciative audience. This is a definitive performance that captures Hopkins' considerable powers near the peak of his popularity. From the foot-tapping rhythm of the set opener, "Come Go With Me" to the set closing "The Rub," Hopkins captivates the Ash Grove audience with his astonishingly adept and inventive guitar playing and witty knack for lyrical improvisation.
On the set opener, "Come Go With Me" one can clearly hear the roots of rock 'n' roll, ala Chuck Berry, who would utilize similar rhythmic elements to wider acclaim. Hopkins' uninhibited style of singing is undeniably expressive here and is a key ingredient at infusing his personality into every song he sings. The monologue that precedes "Black Cadillac" (the first of two songs in this set sourced from his How Many More Years I Got Left LP), is a prime example of Hopkins subtle sense of humor. Essentially a storytelling exercise about simpler times, Hopkins humorously paints a picture of his white eyes and teeth driving down the street in his black Cadillac. Conjuring up a delightfully vivid image in the mind of the listener, Hopkins takes the time to set a mood before delivering this prototype blues.
Hopkins cover of Richard Jone's classic "Trouble In Mind" is laidback to the extreme. This allows the listener to really pay attention to the nuances of his vocal, where he proves to be a master of dynamics. In direct contrast, the next song, "Take Me Back," is a fast-paced finger picking dance number. This is a prime example of Hopkins' distinctive style that effectively incorporates rhythm, bass, lead, and even percussive elements simultaneously. This sound 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.
The same can be said of "My Starter Won't Start This Morning," which includes another fine example of Hopkins playing lead and rhythm simultaneously. Prefacing the song, Hopkins says it is about the car he had BEFORE the black Cadillac, adding some humorous continuity to the proceedings. According to his opening monologue, "Rocky Mountain Blues" is "a song that I love that no-one else does." Not to be confused with other songs bearing the same title, this is a Hopkins original and a tale of rootlessness. The lyrics are psychologically challenging, with one verse fearful and dreading how dangerous the Rocky Mountains are, and the next stating that's exactly where he longs to be. Regardless, both of these songs feature superb examples of Hopkins' guitar style as well as his knack for spontaneous lyric improvisation.
Hopkins winds the set up with a phenomenal delivery of "My Baby Don't Stand No Cheatin'," another key track from his How Many More Years I Got Left LP. Following yet another funny monologue, this time about gambling on the horses, Hopkins really cuts loose, delivering the standout performance of this set. This is a guitar tour-de-force incorporating very imaginative turnarounds and lead lines. The vocal lines are often purposely left hanging so they can serve as a launch point for his highly emotive leads. The audience shouts for more and Hopkins graciously obliges with a romp through "The Rub," featuring one of his most infectious lyrics. Again, Hopkins takes extraordinarily nuanced solos while never letting go of the rhythmic pulse.
Recorded during the prime blues revival era of the 1960s, this is exactly what countless folk and blues guitar players coming of age in the early to mid-1960s heard when they caught Hopkins' live performances. As such, one needn't look far to hear Hopkins influence. From 1960s guitar icons like Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, Jorma Kaukonen, and Duane Allman right up to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and beyond, Hopkins' root sound carries on. This recording is a fascinating glimpse at Lightnin' Hopkins in pure undiluted form.
Written by Alan Bershaw