In this edition of 'T' for Texas Tuesday, we will highlight a Texas blues legend who, like most blues musicians, was never given his due until he had already passed away. In an effort to, just maybe, turn on some folks to a musical genius and a fellow Texan, I give you Lightnin' Hopkins.
Born Sam John Hopkins in the small Texas town of Centerville in 1920, when the boy who would become "Lightnin'" was eight years old he met a brilliant blues guitar player and singer named Blind Lemon Jefferson at a picnic. From that point forward, Hopkins studied the form and style under Alger "Texas" Alexander, a native of Jewett, Texas who is said to be Hopkins' cousin although no direct kinship has ever been confirmed.
Hopkins settled in Houston in 1946 near Dowling St. in the Third Ward, which would remain his base of operations for the rest of his life and where he would be discovered by Aladdin Records' Lola Anne Cullum in 1947.
Hopkins and pianist Wilson Smith headed out to LA to record and were dubbed "Lightnin'" and "Thunder" by an Aladdin executive. Hopkins returned to Houston and hustled around for years with minimal success, the fate of most Black entertainers in the Jim Crow south. However, with the rise of folk music among college students and those marginalized by post-WWII America, Hopkins soon rose to prominence among the counter-culture and blues music aficionados. He even recorded a record with the rhythm section of Austin's psychedelic 13th Floor Elevators in 1968 entitled Free Form Patterns.
Hopkins' voice was an instrument in which the heaviest depths of despair, the brightest highs of living and the truest sincerities of man can be witnessed. Hopkins' voice, his brilliant phrasing, the lulls and lilts, the genius of his often-improvised lines, his attitude and compunction is one of the most touching sounds in all of music.
Hopkins guitar skill also demands attention. Long famous for playing how he wanted to play, disregarding the typical 12-bar phrasing of the blues and changing chords when he felt like it, this stubborn artistry helped make him a unique voice in the tradition and instilling his pieces with an electric, live feel. This could, however, result in awkward situations, particularly with musicians trying to accompany the performer. Billy Gibbons of fellow Texas blues band ZZ Top had a particularly awkward encounter with the legend that involved Lightnin' flat out telling his accompanists that he will change when he wants to change and they better try to keep up. To which Gibbons and co., understanding exactly who were the pupils and who was the maestro, willingly acquiesced.
Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins died at the age of 69 on January 30, 1982. He is perhaps more popular now than he ever was in his life, his skill being heralded by musicians of all stripes and many of them world class and world famous. His iconic style, the dark shades forever masking his eyes – something Dylan would utilize to great effect – his conked pompadour and fine eye for fresh-ass duds, also make him one of the baddest mothers in the blues canon.
Witness the genius of a man whose acoustic guitar, fine finger-picking, imaginative, comical and/or crippling vocals have made him one of Texas' greatest artists and one of the world's finest musicians.