“[Lightnin’ Hopkins] is the embodiment of the jazz-and-poetry spirit, representing its ancient form in the single creator whose words and music are one act.”
~ Musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick
On a chance meeting at a church social in Buffalo, Texas, an eight-year-old Sam John Hopkins met future blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. From that moment on, Hopkins just knew he had the blues in his soul and what he wanted to do with his life.
Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas on March 15, 1912. After the meeting with Jefferson, Hopkins turned to his older cousins and Texas musicians Alger “Texas” Alexander and Frankie Lee Sims to learn the art of the blues. As he was honing his craft, Hopkins would follow Jefferson around to these church socials where Jefferson would play, and often call on Hopkins to join him. This was a rarity, since it has been told Jefferson never shared the stage with anyone.
In the 1930s, just a teen, Hopkins moved to the bigger city of Houston to try to make a go of it as a full-time musician, but it didn’t work out, and by the next decade he was back in Centerville working on a farm.
Hopkins couldn’t shake his love for music and headed back to Houston in 1946, where he took up residence in the Third Ward, on Dowling St., which would become his home. While playing in his neighborhood, Aladdin Records representative Lola Anne Cullum saw Hopkins playing and was enamored by his music. She talked the 34-year-old to head back to Los Angeles with her. Hopkins agreed only if his musical partner and pianist Wilson Smith was allowed to join him.
Once in L.A. the duo cut a dozen tracks with the label, but they needed a name. Hopkins was called “Lightnin’” while Wilson would be called “Thunder.” Hopkins and Wilson would record for Aladdin through 1947 until they headed back home to Houston, where they signed on with Gold Star Records.
Houston was home for Hopkins now, and he would rarely play outside of the Lone Star State unless it was for a recording session or a major concert he could not pass up. Even his biggest hit songs, “T-Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm” were cut at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston.
Hopkins became an icon in his home state with his poetic country-styled blues. But as his popularity grew, he couldn’t contain his performances to just Texas anymore. By the 1960s, Hopkins was playing the folk and blues festivals which were hugely popular. On October 14, 1960, Hopkins played the famous Carnegie Hall alongside folk conquerors Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
Hopkins’ music crossed over into the rock & roll world, where he became equally as popular and recorded the 1968 album ‘Free Form Patterns,’ backed by the rhythm section of psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators. Hopkins would go on into the 1970s playing folk festivals, blues festivals and rock festivals and was received with praise. Into his 60s, Hopkins was playing college campus, folk and blues clubs, dive bars and national and international festivals to thousands of people.
If Hopkins wasn’t touring, he was recording, and if he wasn’t recording he was touring. It was cyclical, and it was once estimated that Hopkins recorded anywhere from 800 to1000 songs and is said to have recorded more albums than any other blues musician in history.
That all came to an end though in his hometown of Houston on January 30, 1982 when Hopkins succumbed to esophageal cancer at the age of 69. His New York Times obituary named him as “one of the great country blues and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players.”
You don’t really need to know much more than that.
Rest in Peace, Lightnin.
A statue of Hopkins sits in Crockett, Texas.