Legendary Texas Blues: The Story of Lightnin’ Hopkins

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Sam Hopkins, better known as Lightnin’ Hopkins, was a Texas bluesman with a career that was equally long and prolific. Over six decades he performed live and recorded for more than 30 years, building up a music catalog which was bigger than most of his counterparts. He was also recognized as a great blues storyteller and although his guitar method was considered unconventional, he will be remembered for his unbeatable authenticity.

Born in 1912, his dad was a musician who died when Sam was a child. He grew up in Centerville, Texas, and in 1920, at a picnic in Buffalo, Texas, he watched Blind Lemon Jefferson, an experience which encouraged him to make his own “cigar box guitar” and play the blues. His older brother taught him how to play that homemade guitar before his mom inspired him to play the organ at her home church services. But, he always leaned toward the music his older brothers would play, eventually dropping out of school to work on a plantation and play the blues at dances and picnics on local farms as well as juke joints, Friday and Saturday nights.

Texas Country Blues Legend: The Story of Lightnin’ Hopkins

Photo: Facebook/Desperate Rock ‘N’ Roll

He formed a partnership with his cousin, Texas Alexander, by the end of the 1920s, which went on into the next decade but had to stop for a brief prison farm stint that Hopkins was sentenced to. Upon his release, the pair picked up again and would travel the state of Texas, often by bus, which drivers would let them ride for free if he played for passengers. They got the opportunity to record with Aladdin Records in 1946, for which Hopkins followed up, making the trip out Los Angeles. On November 4 of that year, he recorded “Katie Mae Blues,” with accompaniment by pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith. Billed as Thunder and Lightnin’, the song was a hit throughout the American southwest, so the label got Lightnin’ Hopkins back in the studio in 1947 when he recorded “Short Haired Women.” The recording sold roughly 40,000 copies, which he followed up with “Baby Please Don’t Go” in 1948, selling more than twice that many. Almost all sales for this latter recording came from the Houston area and his home state of Texas.

Over the course of his career, Hopkins would go on to make records on more than twenty different labels. He had a five-year hiatus from the recording industry between 1954 and 1959 when the rise of Chess records’ popularity led many fans to feel he seemed outdated. But in ‘59, he rose to popularity again with The Folkways label. Following that, he played Carnegie Hall, billed with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, and went on to play the University of California Folk Festival, at Berkeley, and continue to tour the college circuit. Eventually, being featured on the CBS television special “A Pattern of Words & Music,” his version of the blues reached an even broader audience.

Texas Country Blues Legend: The Story of Lightnin’ Hopkins

Photo: Facebook/Face Blues

Throughout the 1960s, Lightnin’ Hopkins appeared on a number of recording labels, through which he requested the money up-front as opposed to accepting royalty payments, which he believed to be insecure. Following his Carnegie Hall performance, he began to get calls from more prestigious venues and played the Newport Folk Festival, toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, and was featured in a film short called “The Sun’s Gonna Shine,” made by Les Blank. Following that, Blank went on to feature him again in a 1968 short entitled, “The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins.” Throughout the 1970s, he did a lot of live performances while continuing to record, playing throughout Canada and the U.S. as well as traveling to appear in Britain. In 1970 he was featured in “Blues Like Showers Of Rain” on British television, and in 1971 on “Artists In America” and “Boboquivari” on PBS. By the 1980s, he began to see a bit of a downturn in his appeal, and in 1982, he passed away in Houston as a result of a battle with cancer, but not before his unique style left an invaluable impression on blues followers the world over.