Remembering Lightnin'

A never-published photo of the Houston music giant spurs memories.

By John Lomax January 31, 2014

 There he is, flush in the middle of his big comeback, some time in the middle or late 1960s...Houston's king of the blues, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. (Photo by John Lomax III: My late grandparents, Mimi Lomax and John A. Lomax Jr., his off-and-on business manager, are standing closest to him.) 

A few years before this photo was taken, Hopkins was at a low ebb. After a run of hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hopkins' style of rough-hewn country blues—an anachronism even when it was on the charts—had fallen out of favor with African-American audiences, save for those of his middle age and up. Hopkins had retreated to his Third Ward stronghold, where he was always able to rustle up enough cash for cigars and hooch, but not quite enough to keep him in his characteristically natty suits and behind the wheel of his beloved Cadillacs. 

In 1959, eccentric local folklorist Mack McCormick  (still alive and well in Spring Branch) tracked the singer/guitarist down in Third Ward. He told Hopkins his style of music was hot with white beatniks and folkies. Hopkins was embraced in this world, and by 1960, he was on stage at Carnegie Hall alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, and releasing new albums consisting of super-traditional blues and spirituals that were old-fashioned even by his standards.

Hopkins spent the rest of his life with a two-track career. He would tailor his shows to black or white audiences—making some effort to keep up with the times for the former, and hearkening deep back into his rural east central Texas past for the latter. Hopkins trusted no one, especially no one in the record business, and always recorded for cash in hand and upfront. There were no contracts in his world. Money in hand, Hopkins would sometimes leave on recording studio and head across town to another and cut a whole new album the same day. By then the dapper suits and Cadillacs were back. That he could make up whole songs on the spot—Lightnin' could "freestyle" the blues like a modern-day rapper—stood him in good stead.

His response song to John Glenn's space shot is one remarkable example. In the run-up to the launch, Hopkins was mortified. He abhorred flying, and thought Glenn was surely doomed. Hopkins penned a dirge and made ready to record it, but before he went into the booth, he caught a joyous news account of Glenn's right stuff. Hopkins scrapped his original song, and the producer saw him sit down and scratch some cryptic pictographs on a sheet of paper, which he took with him in the booth and propped on a music stand in front of him.

Reading those pictographs, Lightnin' gave us this:

Lightnin' had about as much use for record producers as he did for record deals. Well, that's not exactly true. They were good for something. In 2001, Lee Roy Parnell told me the following tale.

"Rob Fraboni was the producer at some session Lightnin' was doing. Fraboni was just a kid. Lightnin' could have cared less who the producer was, you know, just 'Give me the money, and I'll do the songs'...Rob thought Lightnin' just wasn't paying any attention at all, and he was there scrambling around trying to get everybody miked up... And Lightnin' looks up at him, and kinda pulls his glasses down a little bit and says, ''Scuse me, are you the producer?' And Rob gets on the talkback and says, 'Yes, sir, Mr. Hopkins.' And then Lightnin' says, 'Then could you produce me a bottle of wine?'"

Lightnin' also held traditional song structure in scant regard, as Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top once found out.

“We were playing a traditional blues and we all went to the second change, but Lightnin’ was still in the first change," Gibbons once told writer Jas Albrecht. "He stopped and looked at us. Our bass player said, ‘Well, Lightnin’, that’s where the second change is supposed to be, isn’t it?’ Lightnin’ looked back and said, ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.’”

Hopkins passed away of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982. We'll end with this scene from Les Blank's amazing 1967 documentary The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins.  

 May your Friday be as happy as that!

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