Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982) played, sang and lived by his own rules. When a sideman once asked him what key they were playing in, he proclaimed, “the key of Lightnin’ Hopkins!” A protégé of Blind Lemon Jefferson at age 8, he hit the road at a young age, playing juke joints and picnics throughout the South. A stint on a chain gang left some scars, but never slowed him down as he blazed a trail through the blues with his raw, inimitable guitar playing and voice. Like many Black bluesmen, he was “rediscovered” by British rockers and white college kids in the 1960s. John Kruth spoke with people who knew and played with Lightnin’ Hopkins to get a full portrait of this one-of-a-kind artist.
Although he disliked traveling outside his hometown of Houston, Texas, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was hardly a hayseed. He wore his hair conked, capped his teeth with gold, drove a pink and black Dodge and perpetually carried a pint of bourbon in his hip pocket. Lightnin’ dressed slick—“on the pimpy side,” as Mississippi bluesman Skip James once described him. With a tilted porkpie hat, a pair of Raybans and a cigarette dangling from his lips, Hopkins had style to spare. His never-play-it-the-same-way-twice approach set him apart from every other blues musician with the exception of John Lee Hooker, who shared a reputation for changing chords on his guitar whenever he felt like it.
A silver-tongued bard whose improvised lyrics and narrative tales flowed like the automatic prose of Jack Kerouac, Hopkins was just as famous for his hilarious adages as his loose boozy grooves and slippery riffs. When asked to explain the origin of the blues, Lightnin’ quipped they’re “somewhere between the greens and yellows.” Known for his fondness for the bottle, Hopkins proclaimed, on behalf of his own defense, that “if you’re gonna play the blues, you shouldn’t even be able to stand up!”
During the session for his 1977 double album titled Lightnin’, the harmonica player, Jeff Carp, frustrated by the impossible task of following Hopkins finally lost his temper and demanded to know what key they were playing in. “In the key of Lightnin’ Hopkins!” the blues man coolly replied.
Born March 15, 1912, in Centerville, Texas, Sam’s older brother Joel taught him the rudiments of guitar. At the age of eight he met Blind Lemon Jefferson and boldly played him a few of his best licks. Hopkins soon found himself employed as Jefferson’s guide for a short time and allegedly was the only guitarist Lemon would play with.
Lightnin’s career continued picking up steam while accompanying his cousin, blues singer Texas Alexander, around East Texas until he wound up doing hard time on a chain gang. The reason for Hopkins’ conviction remains vague to this day. The story has continually changed over time. In one version, Lightnin’ was framed for a friend’s murder. In another, he made advances on a white woman (for which lynching was often the punishment). In yet another version Hopkins wound up in a ditch on the wrong side of the road after he lost control of his car while trying to avoid running over a fat black pig crossing the street. Whatever the reason for his sentence, Lightnin’ bore scars around his ankles for the rest of his life as a reminder of the injustice and cruelty he suffered.
Once out of jail, Lightnin’ hooked up with Alexander again and toured the South, performing at picnics and juke joints. After joining pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith, Sam was dubbed ‘Lightnin’ and the duo cut an album for the Aladdin label in 1946, which produced a minor hit – “Katie Mae.”
The original release of Katie Mae, 1946:
While combing the streets of Houston in search of Hopkins, author/folklorist/musician Sam Charters sat behind his steering wheel, waiting for the light to change, when a rail-thin black man with a Cheshire cat smile pulled along beside him and mumbled, “I hear you’re looking for a blues singer.” This auspicious meeting led to a solo acoustic session of country blues numbers recorded in a hotel room and released on Folkways Records.
The folk revival of the 1960s helped Hopkins reach a broader audience, taking him from Lone Star gin joints to the college coffeehouse circuit to Carnegie Hall for the first time on October 14, 1960, where he shared the bill with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Famous for rocking juke joints across the South with his electric guitar, Lightnin’ was hardly a traditionalist. Along with Lead Belly, Lightnin’ was probably the most socially conscious blues man whose songs and stories spoke frankly about the hard lives and the mistreatment of Southern blacks. Hopkins never backed off from speaking the truth.
Throughout his career, Hopkins maintained a strong distrust of the record business. Avoiding signing a contract at all-cost, he would only record for a label willing to pay him up front, in cash. Hopkins’ well-founded paranoia ultimately worked in his favor as he cut nearly 200 sides, more than any other blues artist of his day.
A musician’s legacy can often be judged by their influence on those following in their wake. With his deep bag of R&B and blues covers, which included Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too,” Junior Parker’s “Next Time You See Me,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Ain’t It Crazy,” Ron “Pigpen” McKernan first became a local legend at Palo Alto parties and coffee houses before fronting the Grateful Dead. It was Pigpen who motivated Jerry Garcia to transform their old timey revival band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions into the electric Warlocks, and eventually the Grateful Dead. Throughout all the band’s changes Pigpen always kept a Lightnin’ song or two at the ready, delivering a solo acoustic performance of his “Katie Mae” live on Bear’s Choice, released in 1973.
Pigpen singing “Katie Mae” (Lightnin’ Hopkins) with the Dead, 1970:
Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt always claimed that discovering the blues as a teenager saved him from becoming a juvenile delinquent. Along with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Van Zandt became obsessed with the folk/blues singer/guitarist Mance Lipscomb. Although both Lightnin’ and Mance hailed from the Lone Star State, their music was as different as night and day. Lipscomb was known for his clean picking and a humble, earthy delivery while Lightnin’s fiery style seemed inspired from a hotter, more supernatural place than the Piney Woods.
“Mance was a really nice 70-year-old gentleman sharecropper who fell into the folk scene and wound up playing for college kids and drunks,” Guy Clark told me back in the early 1990s. “I’m sure he was wonderin’ what the white man was gonna fool him with next. Lightnin’ was a drinkin’ gamblin’ guitar-playin’ crazy guy all his life. That’s all he ever did. And I think in many ways, Townes felt a little closer to him.” (Lipscomb is also featured alongside Hopkins in Les Blank’s excellent film The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins – see below.)
As a college freshman in the early Sixties, Van Zandt often locked himself in his apartment for days at a time. Taking the phone off the hook; he’d down a bottle of Bali Hai wine and play guitar for hours on end, repeatedly spinning records by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Lightnin’ Hopkins, studying his heroes’ every nuance.
Eventually Van Zandt took lessons from the man himself. But it wasn’t just Hopkins’ distinctive guitar that spoke to Townes, the raw poetry of his lyrics depicting his hard life inspired him to write more personal songs that conveyed a deep emotional impact.
While his many of his peers sang old English folk ballads and romanticized visions of the West, Van Zandt got out and lived the troubadour’s life first-hand. And it wasn’t long before he opened shows with his favorite musicians, including Lightnin’ Hopkins and Doc Watson.
Perhaps the most surprising entry in Lightnin’s vast catalogue came in 1968 when he recorded Free Form Patterns, backed by the Austin’s psychedelic avatars, the 13th Floor Elevators on four of the album’s tracks. But it was a far-more subdued affair than one might expect. Roky Erickson, the Elevators’ legendary front man was nowhere to be found on these grooves, which were considerably more tame when compared to the Elevators’ own records or Muddy Waters’ strange foray into psychedelia – Electric Mud also released the same year.
“Open Up Your Door”-Lightnin’ Hopkins, backed by the 13th Floor Elevators:
Young white longhairs paying homage to their Black mentors became a trend, sparking a series of albums from 1971’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions which featured Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and members of the Rolling Stones, to Hooker n’ Heat, a double album which paired John Lee Hooker with boogie-meisters Canned Heat (and featured Al Wilson’s last recorded performances before his tragic barbiturate overdose in 1970 – making “Blind Owl” another member of the ill-fated “27 Club,” soon to be joined by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin).
While Robert Johnson (the founding member of that damned 27 Club) is still glorified for allegedly selling his soul to the devil to become a virtuoso guitarist and a lyricist of astonishing imagery and economy, Son House battled for his soul, torn between the Lord and “that other fella,” as he used to say. But Lightnin’ Hopkins’ struggle was simple, direct and down to earth. With his guitar and voice, Hopkins unflinchingly sought justice in a racist and sometimes savage world. But he was not above throwing a few unprovoked punches along the way.
“John Lee Hooker was a close friend of mine,” recalled Lawrence Cohn, (one-time student of Reverend Gary Davis and former VP of Epic Records). “He was in town, playing a gig when he called me and said, ‘Let’s go see Martha [Ledbetter, Lead Belly’s wife].’ So, we went over and she answered the door, looking horrible. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘There’s a folk and blues concert at Carnegie Hall (titled Boogie ‘n’ Blues at Carnegie Hall on April 12, 1979) and they’re farming out all the artists and I have Lightnin’ Hopkins staying upstairs. He stays in his room all day and only comes out to buy a bottle of whiskey.’
“Hooker and Hopkins had never met before. So, Martha made the introductions and explains to Lightnin’ that I’m a close friend of the family. We go down to the basement to play. They had a bunch of guitars and a cassette recorder and they turned it on. So, we begin to play and Hooker and Hopkins start trading verses and sayin’ things like, ‘Oh, John Lee you’re the greatest!’ And all that kind of stuff back and forth. Finally, Lightnin’ looked at me and started to sing, ‘I wonder why me and these white people can’t get along!’ Martha turns off the tape recorder immediately and says to Lightnin’ ‘You have some nerve! You’re a guest here! You’re nobody! And Larry is part of this family and if you can’t behave yourself, just pack your things and get the hell out!’ He kinda got religion. I wouldn’t say we were cordial, but it calmed the waters. Finally, it was time to leave. We say our goodbyes, walked outside, and I said, ‘John Lee, why were you telling him he’s ‘the greatest?’’ and he said he was ‘just tryin’ to be nice.”
“Lightnin’ took me everywhere, from Armadillo Headquarters to Carnegie Hall,” bassist Rex Bell recalled fondly. Running buddy and sometime sideman to Townes Van Zandt, Rex was the proprietor of Houston’s legendary club, The Old Quarter, home to musicians of every stripe – Black, white, folk, blues and rock.
“Frank [Beard], Dusty and Rocky Hill were all hangin’ around the Old Quarter,” Rex recollected. “They were all in a band called American Blues but got kicked out of their rehearsal space. Rocky was a real wild man. There was a fight and all their equipment was confiscated. I didn’t really know Billy [Gibbons] at the time and loaned Dusty my bass to try out for ZZ Top. When he got the gig, I started playing with Lightnin’.”
But what was the racial dynamic like at the time in Texas? Did it pose any problems, being a young white longhair traveling around and performing with the legendary blues man?
“Originally Lightnin’ had a Black audience, and he was a big shot in the Black community,” Rex explained. “The first gig we did was in an all-Black club in East Houston. I was a hippie and wasn’t scared of anything. I didn’t think anything about it. The minute people knew I was with Lightnin’ it didn’t even matter anyway. But then I started bringing Lightnin’ into The Old Quarter. I would pay him a hundred bucks, pay his drummer, and hire a bartender and I’d play bass for him. There was a lot goin’ on at the time. Folk music had hit and Townes was huge at The Old Quarter, and there was the Stones and acid rock. And suddenly Lightnin’ is turned on to this predominantly white, college, ‘60s hippie/Vietnam war protester crowd and his audience became white for the most part, about 80 – 90 percent. A year later, we were guaranteeing him five hundred dollars!”
But how the hell do you follow Lightnin’ Hopkins who played in the moment, by instinct, and couldn’t give a damn whether he’d left his band in the dirt, shaking their heads, wonderin’ which way did he go?
“Sometimes he’d be talkin’, and he’d start vampin’ on an E chord on his guitar. So, I’d just hang with him on the E for a while. Sometimes his talking would become the first verse and somehow, I could tell when that first verse started and when to hit the 4 chord in the 1-4-5- [blues progression]. I would hit that open A note [on my bass], and he would love that. He’d start bobbin’ his head up and down. He always wanted me to play open strings. He didn’t want me to play up on the neck. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Rex laughed. “Know when to play an open A! That’s how!
“I was so excited to play Carnegie Hall with him, but then Lightnin’ found out he was goin’ on second. He thought he was headlining the show and got upset and raised a real stink about it, saying, ‘No fuckin’ way!’ He was gonna walk!But the people who run Carnegie Hall are really smart and cool. They told him, ‘You’re headlining the first show!’ So, after Honeyboy Edwards and Lightnin’, they had an intermission followed by John Lee Hooker and Clifton Chenier’s band (with a frail Big Mama Thornton, who according to The New York Times review, “simply stole the show”).
“Lightnin’ was the only performer who talked to the audience that night,” Rex emphasized. “He loved to tell stories and was great at it. Just listen to ‘Mr. Charley.’ I know it’s not politically correct these days to imitate someone who stutters, but that was such a powerful piece. It brought the house down.
“He was amazing and such a thrill to play with. I tell people ‘I played with Townes Van Zandt, but I worked for Lightnin’.’ We were friends, but not drinkin’ buddies like I was with Townes.”
I hadn’t talked with Rex Bell for 15 years and was suddenly calling him out of the blue to ask about his time with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He put me on speakerphone while driving in his car to Austin… to attend the induction ceremony for Lightnin’ Hopkins into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. Suddenly it felt as if Lightnin’s “Mojo Hand” was at play, workin’ its magic from beyond the veil.
“There were only two white guys at the Carnegie Hall gig,” Rex continued. “Me and John Lee Hooker’s bass player, who was a real hippie, wearin’ flip-flops. His jeans were nearly fallin’ off him, they had so many holes. It’s not like today when you buy ‘em like that!” Bell laughed. “Lightnin insisted that I rent a tuxedo. So, me, Lightnin’ and the drummer, all wore ‘em. We looked cool.
“He’d asked me to smuggle a 12-pack of Pearl Beer and an ounce of weed on the plane, in my suitcase. That was a felony! The night before we went out for dinner at the Twin Towers, and every magazine in the world was there. And Lightnin’ loved it. He brought out his Pearl Beer and set it right down. He knew they didn’t have that in New York! He had such style, such stage presence. He’d walk on a stage and command the audience. If you hear him sing one note, you know it’s Lightnin’. If you hear him play one guitar lick, you know it’s Lightnin’. I never thought much about his songwriting till recently and now he’s being inducted into the Texas Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He used to say he wrote all those songs like “Trouble in Mind” [and “Ain’t It Crazy” – covered by the Grateful Dead] and now I know he really did.”
Hopkins’ influence has only continued to grow since his death from esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982. Despite the darkness the world has found itself in, in recent years, guitarist/singer/songwriter Dave Alvin (of the Blasters fame) has managed to survive intact and in style, having recently, as he put it, had “a damn street named after [him]” in Deer Park, Texas (just south of Houston). That lovely piece of road is appropriately located between Lightning Hopkins Street and Buddy Holly Street.
“I was the perfect age when rock and roll came along, I loved it, but never lost my love of country music either,” the self-described West Texas hippie country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore recalled. Beyond rock ‘n’ roll “and all that New Orleans stuff,” Jimmie Dale “started playing harmonica and got into folk music A friend turned me on to Dave Van Ronk and Lead Belly. It’s funny, I never got to know Lightnin’ in Texas. I first saw him in California when he was playing at [the famous LA folk club] the Ash Grove. It turned out that Dave [Alvin] and his brother, Phil, had been hanging out there in the same period that had been so important to me. And that became the basis of our [2018 album Downey to Lubbock and] performances together. We had a lot in common and share a curiosity of music and literature.”
“There was this coffeehouse called the Matrix on Fillmore, where my friend Bob Harvey was playing string bass with the early Jefferson Airplane,” neon sculptor/electronic musician Cork Marcheschi recalled. “This was before [bassist] Jack Casady and Grace Slick joined the band. Signe Anderson was the lead singer. And Bob invited me over to see the band, who were opening for Lightnin’ Hopkins [on September 21, 1965]. Everyone was all excited because [San Francisco Chronicle critic] Ralph J. Gleason was interested in the band and started to write about them and they had these buttons that said ‘Jefferson Airplane Loves You.’ So, they were doing their soundcheck and having a problem with the amplifiers and the sound. It was going on and on and Lightnin’ was sitting like five or six stools away, wearing a beautiful grey suit. You could cut yourself on the crease in his pants. He’s wearing these shoes that look like they’d never been out of the box, they were this beautiful brown. Like you just took the turkey out of the oven color brown, with this shine on them, like the sun was shining off his shoes and we were indoors!
“I said hello and told him how excited I was to see him. He said something off-handed like, ‘What the fuck they doin’ over there?’ I said, ‘I dunno. I’m going to get some food next door. They make good spaghetti. You want to go? I’m happy to buy you dinner.’ He said ‘Sure!’ So, we sat down, and I told him, ‘Your suit is amazing!’ And he just lit up and told me about his tailor. I don’t remember any of the details other than the pride he took in how he looked, and how he carried himself. It was so sweet. It was as if he was describing a pet that he loved,” Cork laughed.
“Lightnin’ identified himself very well, with his sound and the way he looked. I don’t know anybody cooler than Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Lester Chambers (of the 60s psychedelic soul band the Chambers Brothers) recalled. “He was slick, from his shoes to his tie, the whole thing. Every time you saw him, he was dressed to the nines. When he stepped outta his door he was slick already! He didn’t have to go back in the house and get his coat. He was a super man! The Chambers Brothers opened for him at the Ash Grove long, long ago.”
“I asked Lightnin’ how he liked working at coffeehouses full of white college kids,” Cork Marcheschi continued. “He grabbed my arm… in a nice way and said, ‘I wouldn’t be workin’ if it wasn’t for these white college kids!’ I’d also heard the same thing from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, all people I sat with and got to know. They all said the same thing! They had gone from headlining to nothing and had been working three days a month in Chicago until they went to Piccadilly in England, and the Rolling Stones showed up and asked if they could tape their gig. They told them, ‘We’re gonna come and see you in Chicago.’ And the next thing you know, Willie was workin’ at Chess and here they come! We owe it all to those British kids and white college kids who loved the music and got all of these guy’s lives back on track!
“Lightnin’ was combination of flashy/gentle. I asked him if he was married. He said he wasn’t sure anymore,” Marcheschi cackled with laughter. The Airplane played and I can’t remember one thing they said, did or sang. Then Lightnin’, all by himself with his legs crossed, with that crease in his pants, and that sly look on his face, played and sang all the right notes. He was a gentleman of blues.”
For anyone interested in American roots music, Les Blank’s 1968 cinematic portrait The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins is required viewing. It’s an unflinching portrait, strong and up-close, like catching a whiff of whiskey off the bluesman’s breath. Hopkins allegedly hated the film after he saw his pompadour listing like the Lusitania in one somewhat undignified drunken scene.
While brutally truthful, Les Blank’s respect for his subject is never in doubt. “Lightnin’s apparent omniscience was a constant source of surprise for me,” Blank marveled. “He was like an ancient oracle in his uncanny ability to improvise rhyming blues songs about a person or situation that revealed a truth that was perfect in its simplicity, yet infinitely complex in its layers of meaning.”