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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 hand.
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 travelled 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 players."
A statue of Hopkins sits in Crockett, Texas.
Hopkins is referenced in Erykah Badu's 2010 "Window Seat": "I don't want to time-travel no more, I want to be here. On this porch I'm rockin', back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins."
R.E.M features a song named "Lightnin' Hopkins" on their 1987 album Document.
Hopkins' style was born from spending many hours playing informally without a backing band. His distinctive fingerstyle playing often included playing, in effect, bass, rhythm, lead, percussion, and vocals, all at the same time. He played both "alternating" and "monotonic" bass styles incorporating imaginative, often chromatic turnarounds and single-note lead lines. Tapping or slapping the body of his guitar added rhythmic accompaniment.
Much of Hopkins' music follows the standard 12-bar blues template but his phrasing was very free and loose. Many of his songs were in the talking blues style, but he was a powerful and confident singer. Lyrically his songs chronicled the problems of life in the segregated south, bad luck in love and other usual subjects of the blues idiom. He did however deal with these subjects with humor and good nature. Many of his songs are filled with double entendres and he was known for his humorous introductions.
Some of his songs were of warning and sour prediction such as "Fast Life Woman":