Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins

King of Texas Blues

Painted by Frank Graham

Lightnin' Hopkins sings Tim Moore Blues:

Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins is the undisputed King of Texas Blues.  If the reader is only marginally familiar with blues music, they still no doubt have heard of him. He was a greatly prolific Trans-Brazos Blues master and his bountiful recordings made him world famous. Traveling all over America and Europe, he took his country/urban sound farther than any of his contemporaries. He was honored at a George Bush Library exhibit as one of “100 Tall Texans.”

After growing up under the shadow of his cousin Texas Alexander, he began touring with a pianist named Wilson “Thunder” Smith, and soon he was dubbed “Lightnin.” Although “Thunder and Lightnin” did not storm Texas long, this nickname stuck for the rest of his career. 

         Lightnin’ Hopkins is said to have recorded around 85 albums for numerous labels, including Aladdin, Gold Star, Prestige-Bluesville, Folkways, Verve and Arhoolie.

Born in Leon County into a musical family near Centerville, Texas in 1912, Lightnin’ Hopkins started his legend as a youngster around 1920 in nearby Buffalo, when he tried to upstage Blind Lemon Jefferson while at a church social.  Blind Lemon teased and humored him, and baptized him into Blues performing for the rest of his life.  Who could have imagined that the cute little rascal would one day headline with big acts like the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. His song “Shotgun Blues” rose to number 5 on the Billboard charts in 1950.

Sam Hopkins did a little time inside the TDC, and it is believed that he worked on the Moore Prison Farm at Allenfarm, and this is where he picked up the "Tim Moore Blues." He change Tom to Tim hoping this would buy a little measure of grace from the legendary Moore Brothers who owned much of the land around the Brazos Bottom near Navasota.

Chris Strachwitz must be given a great deal of credit for promoting Hopkins, who he found playing in Houston. In 1959 Strachwitz started his Arhoolie label to market Lightnin’ Hopkins’ music, and that led to a whole bunch of other discoveries in Texas.  Mack McCormick began to manage his public performances, and Lightnin’ struck the blues circuit. This led to Carnegie Hall, European tours and a command performance for the Queen of England.

McCormick was amazed at Lightin’s musical spontaneity and cavalier attitude, often talking incessantly and almost making the audience beg for his next number. But Hopkins had learned instinctively from his upbringing under Blues Valley masters that bantering with your audience was an essential part of the gig. In the traditions of Blind Lemon, Blind Willie and Texas Alexander, songsters were more than entertainers, they were anointed messengers of a deep current of feelings and issues that could not be expressed. They were supposed to get carried away, swept up by the currents of the blues culture. They were a combination of the ancient tribal chieftains, the Pied Piper and Dr. Phil and Jesse Jackson, and sometimes the energy from the audience was more important than the next number. Besides, his guitar might be out of tune and he needed to stall until break time.  

Later Arhoolie released a Texas blues classic, which featured the Hopkins brothers, John Henry, Joel and Sam. After a lifetime in and out of Texas prisons, the older John Henry was finally on the outside and agreed to make a home recording in Waxahachie with is brothers, who each had a distinct style.  Not eclipsed by cousin Texas Alexander, the Hopkins boys left a legacy of Texas blues in their own right.

Click below to hear Hopkins sing Bring Me My Shotgun"

Lightnin’ Hopkins beat the odds after a lifetime of hard living and playing, lived to be an old man and died of natural causes in 1982.

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