The Day Before Yesterday In Music History: Lightnin’ Hopkins

Sam Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas on March 15, 1912.

Having two older brothers, John Henry and Joel, who played the Blues, Sam had learned enough on the guitar to be able to play and sing at local suppers and social functions when he was still a teenager. In 1920, he even had the chance to meet and play with the now-legendary Texas Blues singer/guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson.

A few years later, Sam started accompanying the singer/lyricist Texas Alexander around Houston. This relationship continued off and on through the 1930s and into the 1940s when, in 1946, they were playing on Dowling Street in Houston and caught the ear of Aladdin Records talent scout Lola Anne Cullum. She arranged for Sam, without Texas, to travel with her to Los Angeles, CA for a recording session.

At the studio, Mrs. Cullum decided to pair Sam with pianist/singer Wilson “Thunder” Smith. When the recording engineer heard Sam picking out his rapid-fire Blues licks behind Smith, he christened him “Lightnin'” and the name stuck.

Singer/guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, with Thunder Smith helping out on piano, cut his first  record on November 9, 1946. Entitled “Katie May,” it sold well enough around Texas for Lightnin’ to return to California and record his second hit: “Short Haired Woman.” 

Lightnin’ Hopkins went on to become one of the greatest, most prolific and most popular of all of the Texas Country Blues musicians. His career as a singer, guitarist, songwriter and performing artist stretched into the 1980s.

My favorite Lightnin’ Hopkins album, and one of my most favorite albums by any Blues artist, is the Smithsonian/Folkways CD simply entitled “Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

Recorded with a single microphone on January 16, 1959 in Hopkins’ one-room apartment at 2803 Hadley St., in Houston, Texas by musicologist Sam Charters, the album contains a mere ten songs. But those ten songs, those ten, naked and unvarnished performances “arguably capture the essence of Lightnin’ Hopkins better than any of his other recordings.” (Thom Owens, All Music Guide to the Blues) In the liner notes for the 1990 CD of the album, Sam Charters says that over the years, when “asked if there was some way to describe the Country Blues… the easiest way I could think of was to play this album.”

When released in 1959, the album introduced Lighnin’ and his music to a whole new audience and brought his recording and performing career to heights he’d never known. The album also played a major part in sparking the Blues revival of the late-1950’s/early-1960’s.    

Very Highly Recommended.

Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins passed away on January 30, 1982 in Houston, Texas.

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One Response to The Day Before Yesterday In Music History: Lightnin’ Hopkins

  1. TPS says:

    Interesting that you should write about Lightnin’ just now. After I don’t know how many years, I just pulled out my Lightnin’ Hopkins box set and began listening to it again last week. Wonderful songs, and it was so good that he was able to enjoy some popular notoriety in his lifetime. So many of his contemporaries didn’t get to do the same….

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