Lightnin' Hopkins - guitar, vocal; Guest: Bernie Pearl - guitar on last 2 songs
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 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 headlining a 1967 bill that also featured the contemporary jugband styilngs of the Lydia E. Pinkham Superior Orchestra (also available here at Wolfgang's), performing before an intimate and appreciative audience. This performance not only captures Hopkins' considerable powers as a guitar player and blues stylist but also finds him in a particularly chatty mood that conveys his personality and subtle laid back sense of humor.
This first set of the evening begins with Hopkins' ruminations on the trials and tribulations of marrying too young in "I Hate I Got Married." This is a prime example of Hopkins laid back vocal delivery and irregular guitar lines creating a distinctive form of rough poetry that bridges the gap between rural and urban blues styles. Following a brief, but humorous monologue about minding one's own business, he follows with "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," an equally laid-back exercise that complements the previous number by continuing the storyline to its inevitable conclusion.
A lengthy monologue follows about a stuttering childhood friend of Hopkins that inspires the lyrics to "Mr. Charlie." Hopkins' uninhibited style of singing and undeniably expressive voice is a key ingredient at infusing his personality into every song he sings. Hopkins' cover of Richard Jones' classic "Trouble In Mind" is another fine example, where he not only proves to be a master of dynamics, but also has this highly covered number sounding like one of his own.
Up until this point, all the songs have had a relaxed laidback feel, but that all changes during a romp through "Ain't It Crazy," featuring one of his most infectious lyrics. Here Hopkins speeds up the tempo, takes extraordinarily nuanced solos, and never lets go of the rhythmic pulse.
The last four songs of this set may be the most intriguing, as they all better convey Hopkins distinct fun-loving personality, beginning with "California Mudslide," which would become the title song of an album the following year. Here Hopkins contemplates religion, or in his case, the wish to avoid it. This also features another great example of Hopkins' simple, yet extraordinarily nuanced solos. The song intro that follows is particular funny leading into the not-so-charming, yet musically infectious Slim Harpo seduction song, "Baby, Scratch My Back." For the last two numbers "Help Me On My Way" and "High Heeled Sneakers," Hopkins is joined on stage by Bernie Pearl, who adds lead guitar to the proceedings. The former is a fine example of pure country blues, while on the set closer one can clearly hear the roots of rock 'n' roll, ala Chuck Berry, who would utilize similar rhythmic elements to much wider acclaim.
Recorded in 1967, this is exactly what countless folk and blues guitar players coming of age in 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.
Written by Alan Bershaw