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Happy Birthday, Samuel Lightnin’ Hopkins, Pioneer of Texas Blues

March 15, 2010
by Christopher Coats
Blending southern poetry and a loose, all-encompassing handling of the guitar, Lightnin’ Hopkins brought a Texas accent to the masses with one of the most prolific blues careers in history.

Samuel Lighnin' Hopkins' Early Days

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Hopkins was born outside Houston in the farmlands of Centerville, Texas, on March 15, 1912. He encountered the blues early in life when he met one of blues music’s original voices, Blind Lemon Jefferson, at a church picnic.

Just 8 years old at the time, Hopkins reportedly decided then and there that blues music was his calling, and went about building his first guitar out of a cigar box, a wood plank and some wire he found around town.

This early discovery led Hopkins to spend every minute he could practicing, eventually coming under the guidance of his much older cousin, Alger “Texas” Alexander.

Intent on avoiding the type of farm work common in rural Texas in the early 1900s, which Hopkins viewed as demeaning, the young guitarist began playing small gin joints and bars across the state with his cousin.

Notable Accomplishments

Eventually, Hopkins found his way to Houston’s 3rd Ward and to Dowling Street, home of the city’s music venues and bars, where he became known for a loose but full sound that he developed over years of performing without a band to back him.

Left mostly alone with his guitar, Hopkins developed a style that incorporated the sound of a whole band, including rhythm and lead guitar parts, bass, and even percussion, achieved by knocking his own instrument.

Making the most of his surroundings, Hopkins earned a reputation for drinking and gambling—a habit that landed him in jail for a short time in his mid-30s. Shortly after his release, a talent scout heard him play and invited him to leave Houston behind and travel to Los Angeles to record.

Laying down his first tracks for Aladdin Records in 1946, Hopkins soon began a streak of recording that would last much of the rest of his life, sidestepping formal contracts and playing for whatever label would have him.

It was there that Hopkins paired up with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith, and the Texan’s moniker of Lightnin’ was born.

However, before long homesickness brought him back to Texas where he began a decade of relative obscurity on the national stage, as rock and a quicker style of blues began to overshadow his slow, country style.

It was not until the late 1950s, when music fans began searching for the roots of their favorite rock and folk songs, that Lightnin’ Hopkins and other blues greats such as Muddy Waters were given a second life.

Although he had never stopped recording and performing, Hopkins witnessed a dramatic resurgence in interest as 1960 arrived, complete with invitations to play at Carnegie Hall.

Praised for his unique handling, rural poetry and improvisational style that saw songs performed differently almost every time they were played, Hopkins was soon credited for influencing artists from B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix.

Hardly a renaissance of greatest hits, Hopkins’ career in the early 1960s was arguably his most productive, churning out record after record as he began to travel beyond the American south, playing concerts far and wide, including shows in Europe, Asia and even a command performance for the Queen of England.

Eventually, Hopkins adopted the electric guitar and began playing with a backing band, though it only served to open up his instrument in ways he had never been able to.

The Rest of the Story

Cited as the prime influence on the laid-back, country-influenced Texas blues, Hopkins was often mentioned as a primary influence behind such later guitar luminaries from the Lone Star state as Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughn and Doyle Bramhall.

Staying largely close to home after a car accident in the mid-1970s, Hopkins continued performing until 1982 when he died from throat cancer.

Boasting more recordings than his years on earth, Lightnin’ Hopkins remains a vital part of Texas music lore and one of blues music’s most prolific and influential figures.
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