"People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don't have the soul. They don't feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I'm killin' myself to tell them how it is."– Lightnin' Hopkins
Born Sam Hopkins, his father was a musician, who died when Sam was very young. The family moved to Leona in Texas where he grew up; in 1920 he watched Blind Lemon Jefferson at a picnic in Buffalo Texas, which inspired him to make a 'cigar box' guitar. His older brother Joel taught him to play the homemade guitar before his mother, Frances, encouraged him to play organ at her home church services. However, he was drawn to the music played by his older brothers Joel and John Henry. He soon dropped out of school and like most people with his kind of background Sam worked on the plantation. "I did a little plowin' – not too much, chopped a li'l cotton, pulled a li'l corn. I did a little of it all." He, like many other bluesmen, began playing at picnics and dances at local farms on a Friday and Saturday night; later he took to hoboing throughout Texas.
By the end of the 1920s he formed a partnership with his cousin, Texas Alexander and the two of them played on street corners for tips. Their partnership continued until the mid 1930s when Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm, for some unknown offence. After his release he rejoined Alexander working at picnics, parties and juke joints, as well as working outside of music. He would travel around Texas, often on buses, where the drivers would even let him ride for free as long as he played for the passengers.
In 1946, Hopkins and Alexander were offered a recording contract by an Aladdin Record's talent scout, inexplicably only Hopkins followed up the offer when Lightnin' and his manager Lola Ann Cullum, made the trip out west to Los Angeles to record on 4 November 1946. He cut 'Katie Mae Blues', with pianist Wilson 'Thunder' Smith; they were billed as Thunder and Lightnin'. It was a hit in the Southwest so Aladdin got him back into the studio a year later when he recorded, 'Short Haired Women', which sold around 40,000 copies. In 1948 he sold over twice that many records with his recording of 'Baby Please Don't Go', almost all of them around the Houston area and his home state.
At the same time as recording for Aladdin, he would record 43 sides in all for the label, he cut records for Goldstar in Houston, sometimes it was the same songs; in fact he would go on to make records for over twenty different labels during his long drawn out recording career. If he was not the most prolific blues recording artist his discography was certainly the most complex to unravel. He made the R&B charts in 1949 with 'Tim Moore's Farm'; over the course of the next three years he had four more hits, the biggest was 'Shotgun Express', which made No.5.
Hopkins had a 5-year hiatus away from recording between 1954 and 1959, although he did make a couple of records in 1956. With the rise and rise of Chess records electric blues was what the fans wanted and to many Hopkins seemed old fashioned. In 1959 he was 'rediscovered' by folklorist Mack McCormick and his career was revived when Sam Charters recorded him for The Folkways label. The following year he played Carnegie Hall with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger as well as playing at the University of California Folk Festival, in Berkeley, California, and touring the college circuit. He got to an even wider audience when he appeared on the CBS TV special, A Pattern Of Words & Music.
Throughout the 1960's his prolific output appeared on a variety of labels. His preferred method of recording was to get the money up front, to Hopkins royalty payments was far too insecure a way of earning a living; Lightnin' did not like to waste a lot of time so he usually did only the one take. After his Carnegie Hall appearance he began to play more prestigious venues, including, the Newport Folk Festival as well as touring Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964. He sometimes appeared with Clifton Chenier's Band and in 1967 he featured in a film short made by Les Blank entitled The Sun's Gonna Shine, the following year Blank made 1968 another short, The Blues According' To Lightnin' Hopkins.
Like many of his contemporaries, he too recorded something of a progressive electric blues album –The Great Electric Show & Dance, but it was not a setting in which Hopkins felt comfortable. During the 1970's he remained very active in both the recording studio as well as playing live. He played throughout the USA and Canada and again crossed the Atlantic to appear in Britain, despite his dislike for flying. In 1970 he was featured in the British TV show, Blues Like Showers Of Rain and the following year on PBS TV in Artists In America and Boboquivari. As the 80s rolled around he was beginning to see a downtown in the appeal of his unique brand of Texas country blues, he was also having some issues with his own health. He died of cancer in Houston Texas in January 1982.
Lightnin' Hopkins was a master of tall, tongue-in-cheek tales, often made up on the spot in the recording studio. The first song on this album, "I'm Going to Build Me a Heaven of My Own," adescribes an encounter with a bearded man claiming to be Jesus Christ. Hopkins also puts his personal stamp on Willie Dixon's "My Babe" and Smokey Hogg's "Too Many Drivers," among others.
This is a seven-CD box set that repackages all 11 LPs that Lightnin' Hopkins recorded for Bluesville and Prestige during the first half of the 1960s: Last Night Blues, Lightnin', Blues in My Bottle, Walkin' This Road By Myself, Lightnin' and Co., Smokes Like Lightning, Hootin' the Blues, Goin' Away, Down Home Blues, Soul Blues and My Life in the Blues. The very prolific Hopkins (who was never loyal to any one label) also recorded for Candid, Arhoolie, Fire and Vee Jay during the period! The bulk of My Life in the Blues is actually a lengthy and rather historic interview that Samuel Charters conducted with Hopkins. A special bonus of the set is 13 often exciting tracks from a previously unissued concert at the Swathmore College Folk Festival. The music throughout the box covers quite a variety of moods and subject matter (with Hopkins being unaccompanied on 34 of the tracks) and definitively sums up the veteran bluesman's later period.
Words: Scott Yanow
Recorded for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary in 1960 and reissued on CD for Fantasy's Original Blues Classics (OBC) series in 1990, Lightnin' is among the rewarding acoustic dates Lightnin' Hopkins delivered in the early '60s. The session has an informal, relaxed quality, and this approach serves a 48-year-old Hopkins impressively well on both originals like "Thinkin' 'Bout an Old Friend" and the familiar "Katie Mae" and enjoyable interpretations of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee's "Back to New Orleans" and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "Mean Old Frisco." Hopkins' only accompaniment consists of bassist Leonard Gaskin and drummer Belton Evans, both of whom play in an understated fashion and do their part to make this intimate setting successful. From the remorseful "Come Back Baby" to more lighthearted, fun numbers like "You Better Watch Yourself" and "Automobile Blues," Lightnin' is a lot like being in a small club with Hopkins as he shares his experiences, insights and humor with you.
Words: Alex Henderson
Outside of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins may be Texas's most distinctive and influential blues export. His easy, fluid fingerpicking and witty, extemporaneous storytelling are always a delight, and his performances on Last Night Blues are no exception. The album is spare and acoustic, with Hopkins's voice and guitar accompanied by minimal percussion and Sonny Terry's harmonica. Terry's contributions really add a lot to these tunes, threading a high, lonesome whine on the downtempo tunes and a chugging, propulsive shuffle on the faster ones. Hopkins is, of course, one of the kings of the blues boogie, but he's equally compelling on the slow blues, and he never missteps throughout this fine set. All told, this dynamite disc represents what the blues should be: stripped-down, soulful, and full of truth.
The late great Lightnin' Hopkins was one of the most natural of bluesmen, a poet who would often make up lyrics as he recorded. He was at his best when unaccompanied, as on this 1961 Prestige date. Though he usually played electric guitar, the Texas blues titan performed on this release with an acoustic, and the result is most rewarding. Tunes include "Goin' to Dallas to See My Pony Run" and "Buddy Brown's Blues."
For the 1963 album Goin' Away, Lightnin' Hopkins was backed by a spare rhythm section -- bassist Leonard Gaskin and drummer Herb Lovelle -- who managed to follow his ramshackle, instinctual sense of rhythm quite dexterously, giving Hopkins' skeletal guitar playing some muscle. Still, the spotlight remains Hopkins, who is in fine form here. There are no real classics here, but everything is solid, particularly "Stranger Here" and "You Better Stop Her," making it worth investigation by serious fans of Hopkins' classic material.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
A Lightnin' solo concert from his college kiddie-folk period (1964), this languished unissued in Fantasy Records' vaults until its release in the early '90s. That's a shame, because this concert captures Lightnin' at his beguiling best, spinning tales and blues magic with every track. His introductions are half the show, making even shopworn staples like "Baby Please Don't Go" and "My Babe" sound fresh. His guitar work is astounding, pulling off inventive leads while maintaining a constant boogie rhythm that makes other instruments superfluous. If you want a disc that clearly showcases Lightnin' Hopkins at his enchanting best, start your collection with this one; it's a charmer.
Words: Cub Koda
Though he had been performing since the 1920s, Texas bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins was a fresh face to the majority of the young folk audiences of the 1960s. On the verge of drifting into obscurity, the singer had been rediscovered by enthusiast Mack McCormick and promoted to college crowds as a singer/guitarist in the folk-blues mold. What followed was a series of albums cut both solo and with session musicians for a variety of labels. How Many More Years I Got was one of the earliest. The players here are extremely loose, betraying a casual interest in the task at hand. They sound like a group of borrowed session men, but were in fact a small combo familiar both with each other and Hopkins himself. Bassist Donald Cooks, pianist Buster Pickens, drummer "Spider" Kilpatrick, and Hopkins' harp-playing cousin, Billy Bizor, all played on a number of the guitarist's dates during the early '60s.
The most important part of Lightnin' Hopkins' career was spent in juke joints in Houston, but during the early 1960s, he also became a star along the folk circuit, playing clubs that catered mostly to college students eager to hear authentic acoustic blues. Several of those shows were recorded over the years to capitalize, and while the albums don't have the same importance as Hopkins' classic blues sides of the 1940s and 1950s, they do show another side of the man, and one he seemed to take to very naturally. Hootin' The Blues is one of Hopkins' better folk club concerts, capturing him in an intense performance on acoustic guitar, rapping (in the sense of talking) about the blues and what it means as he introduces some powerful songs: "Blues Is a Feeling," "In the Evenin'," and "Meet Me in the Bottom," among others. The best moment, though, is his reinvention of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" as an acoustic guitar number (trust me, it works), which displays the kind of fingering that must've made a young Eric Clapton want to sit down and cry.
Words: Bruce Eder
The album, recorded in three 1962 sessions, consists simply of Hopkins and his guitar, except for three songs that are performed with a full band. The sound is spare and very loose, with a re-recording of "T Model Blues" and the dance song "Let's Do the Susie-Q," a musical exhortation that seems unlikely to inspire dancing. A brief and uneven album, Smokes Like Lightnin' is less compelling than Hopkins' '50s recordings, but strikes an appealingly lazy acoustic groove.
Words: Greg Adams