Sam John Hopkins (March 15, 1912 – January 30, 1982), better known as Lightnin’ Hopkins,
was an American country blues singer, songwriter, guitarist and
occasional pianist, from Houston, Texas. Rolling Stone magazine included
Hopkins at number 71 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of
all time. Musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick opined that 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".
Born Sam John Hopkins in Centerville, Texas, Hopkins' childhood was
immersed in the sounds of the blues and he developed a deeper
appreciation 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" and went on to learn from his older (somewhat distant) cousin,
country blues singer Alger "Texas" Alexander. Hopkins had another
cousin, the Texas electric blues guitarist Frankie Lee Sims, with whom
he later recorded. Hopkins began accompanying Blind Lemon Jefferson on
guitar in informal church gatherings. Jefferson supposedly never let
anyone play with him except for young Hopkins, who learned much from and
was influenced greatly by Blind Lemon Jefferson thanks to these
gatherings. In the mid-1930s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison
Farm for an unknown offense. In the late 1930s, Hopkins moved to Houston
with Alexander in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the music scene
there. By the early 1940s, he was back in Centerville working as a farm
Hopkins took a second shot at Houston in 1946. While singing on Dowling
St. in Houston's Third Ward (which would become his home base), he was
discovered by Lola Anne Cullum from the Los Angeles-based record label
Aladdin Records. She convinced Hopkins to travel to Los Angeles, where
he accompanied pianist Wilson Smith. The duo recorded twelve tracks in
their first sessions in 1946. An Aladdin Records 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. He returned to Houston
and began recording for the Gold Star Records label. During the late
1940s and 1950s Hopkins rarely performed outside Texas. He occasionally
traveled to the Mid-West and Eastern United States for recording
sessions and concert appearances. It has been estimated that he recorded
between 800 and 1000 songs during his career. He performed regularly at
clubs in and around Houston, particularly in Dowling St. where he had
first been discovered. He recorded his hits "T-Model Blues" and "Tim
Moore's Farm" at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston. By the mid to
late 1950s, his prodigious output of quality recordings had gained him a
following among African Americans and blues music aficionados.
In 1959, Hopkins was contacted by Mack McCormick, who hoped to bring him
to the attention of the broader musical audience, which was caught up
in the folk revival. McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences
first in Houston and then in California. Hopkins debuted at Carnegie
Hall on October 14, 1960, appearing alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger
performing the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep". In 1960, he signed to
Tradition Records. 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 psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Hopkins released one or sometimes
two albums a year and toured, playing at major folk festivals and at
folk clubs and on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally. He
toured extensively in the United States and played a six-city tour of
Japan in 1978.
Houston's poet-in-residence for 35 years, Hopkins recorded more albums than any other bluesman.
Hopkins died of esophageal cancer in Houston on January 30, 1982, 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