Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins - A True Texas Blues Legend

By Matthew Jorn

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was born in Centreville, Texas on March 15th, 1912. Houston's poet-in-residence for 35 years, he was one of the most widely known and listened to blues artists to come out of Houston, Texas during the 20th century.

Lightnin' spent much of his younger life immersed in a world of blues and blues singers. When he was 8 years old he met Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic in Buffalo, Texas. From that day on he played the blues, learning first from his distant cousin Alger "Texas" Alexander. Lightnin' later began playing alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson, who would supposedly play with young Lightnin' and no one else.

After a stint in the Houston County Prison Farm, he attempted to break into the blues scene with his cousin Alger in the late 1930s but was unsuccessful. Lightnin' worked as a farmhand until he made a second attempt at a music career in 1946. He was discovered by Aladdin Records' Lola Anne Cullum while playing on Dowling St. in Houston's Third Ward. She took him to Los Angeles, and was accompanied in the studio by pianist Wilson Smith. It was in this duo where he earned his moniker; He was "Lightnin'" and Smith was "Thunder."

Lightnin' quickly became homesick, and in 1947 moved to Houston and joined the Gold Star Records label. He rarely performed outside of Texas during this time, sticking mostly to clubs including Dowling St. During this time he recorded a great number of tracks for various labels. He became known for his style which grew from his early days of impromptu and informal church gatherings where he rarely played with a backup band.  He made up for this deficiency by playing the other parts simultaneously, acting as lead singer, bassist, rhythm guitarist and percussion, often striking or tapping the body of his guitar for the desired musical effect. His sizable library of recordings trickled out of Texas, and his reputation among blues enthusiasts abroad grew significantly from the mid to late 1950s, but wouldn't taste fame until the next decade.

In 1959 Lightnin' began working with Folklorist Mack McCormick as a result of the rhythm and blues popularity boom brought about by the folk revival. Thanks to this upswing, Lightnin' began playing for mixed audiences in much larger venues. He played Carnegie Hall in 1960 performing the spiritual 'Oh, Mary Don't You Weep'.

By the early 1960s Lightnin's reputation had grown tremendously, and he began recording with other artists from various genres. From the 1960s through the 1970s he toured internationally, recorded and released one or two albums per year, and has to date recorded more albums than any other bluesman. Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins died of esophageal cancer in 1982. A statue of his likeness stands in Crockett, Texas.

This article is part of a series of educational biographies of great Texas music legends written by Matthew Jorn and presented by Russell and Smith Ford in Houston. Texas has always been a hotbed of musical talent, and Russell and Smith Ford Dealer Houston is proud to share this story of true Texas talent.

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