Lightnin’ Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas….and as a child was immersed in the sounds of the blues…..as he developed a deep appreciation for this music at the age of 8….when he met Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic in Buffalo, Texas. That day, Hopkins felt the blues was “in him”….so he went on to learn from his older (distant) cousin, the country blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander ….along with another cousin, the Texas electric blues guitarist Frankie Lee Sims….with whom he later recorded. Hopkins began accompanying Jefferson on guitar at informal church gatherings….as Blind Lemon reputedly never let anyone play with him except young Hopkins….whereby Hopkins learned much from Jefferson at these gatherings.
In the mid-1930’s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm for an offense for which is still unknown. In the late 1930’s, he moved to Houston with Alexander in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the music scene there…..whereas by the early 1940’s, he was back in Centerville, working as a farm hand.
Lightnin’ Hopkins took a second shot at Houston in 1946….and while singing on Dowling Street in Houston’s Third Ward….when he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum of Aladdin Records….which was based in Los Angeles…..as she convinced Hopkins to travel to Los Angeles….where he accompanied the pianist Wilson Smith….as the duo recorded twelve tracks in their first sessions in 1946….when an Aladdin executive decided the pair needed more dynamism in their names and dubbed Hopkins “Lightnin” and Wilson “Thunder”.
Hopkins recorded more sides for Aladdin in 1947…..then he returned to Houston and began recording for Gold Star Records. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s he rarely performed outside Texas….while only occasionally traveling to the Midwest and the East for recording sessions and concert appearances.
It has been estimated that he recorded between eight hundred and a thousand songs in his career. He performed regularly at nightclubs in and around Houston….particularly on Dowling Street….where he had been discovered by Aladdin. He recorded the hit records “T-Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm” at Sugar Hill Recording Studios in Houston. By the mid- to late 1950’s, his prodigious output of high-quality recordings had gained him a following among African Americans and blues aficionados.
In 1959, the blues researcher Mack McCormick contacted Hopkins, hoping to bring him to the attention of a broader musical audience engaged in the folk revival….as McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences first in Houston and then in California. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960 alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger….while performing the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”. In 1960, he signed with Tradition Records….and in the recordings which followed included his song “Mojo Hand” in 1960. In 1968, Hopkins recorded the album Free Form Patterns….backed by the rhythm section of the psychedelic rock band of Rocky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. Through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, he released one or sometimes two albums a year….while touring and playing at major folk music festivals and at folk clubs….while also performing on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally. He toured extensively in the United States….while playing a six-city tour of Japan in 1978.
Lightnin’ Hopkins was Houston’s poet-in-residence for 35 years….where he recorded more albums than any other bluesman. Hopkins died of esophageal cancer in Houston on January 30, 1982, at the age of 69…..which was just 3 years after this Austin City Limits performance seen herewith. His obituary in the New York Times described him as “one of the great country blues singers and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players.” His Gibson J-160e “hollowbox” guitar is on display at the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland….while his Guild Starfire guitar is at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC, both on loan from the Joe Kessler collection.
Lightnin’ Hopkins is a major piece of American blues guitar history…..which makes this video “pure gold” in our treasure chest of vintage memories….for it is well worth the watch by anyone who loves the blues guitar.