Samuel John 'Lightnin' Hopkins was one of the blues guitarists who most influenced rock & roll, so much so that it is said that Jimi Hendrix himself became interested in the blues after listening to some Hopkins records that his father owned. Of course, his imprint can be appreciated much better in his native Texas, on people like the Vaughan brothers - Jimmy and Stevie Ray - with a style that was perfectly defined by the king of blues guitarist, B.B. King: "Lightnin' Hopkins may not have known many notes, but he knew the right ones and he knew where to put them. Some genius with four doctorates in music theory won't be able to do in a lifetime what Lightnin' did in a minute, to tell you the truth." Hopkins started out playing acoustic Delta blues but also had some very interesting electric recordings, though his best-known guitars were two Gibson acoustics, a J-50 and a J-160 (that is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland). Here are 10 of our favorite songs from his career:
Baby Please Don’t Go (1947)
Lightnin' Hopkins began earning a living professionally in the 1930s but it wasn't until the mid-1940s, after serving time in jail and a stint working on a farm, that he began recording regularly. His first recordings were for the Aladdin label in Los Angeles in '46 and '47, but that same year he returned to Houston and began recording for Gold Star. One of his first recordings there was Baby Please Don't Go which, although Hopkins presented it as his own, was a Big Joe Williams cover version. Here you can appreciate his enormous quality as a vocalist and his incomparable guitar style that managed to turn this song into a standard of the genre, with multiple later versions, such as that by John Lee Hooker or the best known, the 1964 cover by Van Morrison's Them.
I Woke Up This Morning (1964)
This track is a gem from his 1964 album Down Home Blues released on the Bluesville label with Hopkins singing and playing electric guitar, Leonard Gaskin accompanying him on bass and Hervie Lovelle on drums. It is a perfect song to understand the B.B. King quote given at the beginning of this article, with Hopkins playing in a slow and eerie way, so much so that it seems it was this song that Hendrix was thinking of when he said "the blues is easy to play, but hard to feel".
Mojo Hand (1960)
Once ‘rediscovered’ Hopkins signed to Fire and released one of the best albums of his career, Mojo Hand. The title track sees Hopkins moving into R&B territory, with a pounding drum beat and great work by the artist on the electric. In addition in the lyrics he offered one of his most accurate and long-remembered phrases, "Cold ground was my bed last night, rocks was my pillow too"; a phrase that Bob Marley would later re-employ in his Natty Dread's Talkin' Blues.
Hopkins' Sky Hop (1954)
Lightnin' Hopkins' 1954 recordings for the Herald label are among the most influential of his career, with amps cranked to the max and Hopkins in wild guitar mode. These songs were a huge influence on nascent rock & roll - what the hell – ‘this is rock & roll, baby!’ His licks and fast tempo on Hopkins' Sky Hop were the clear inspiration for Stevie Ray Vaughan's Rude Mood.
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (1959)
By 1959 Lightnin' Hopkins had been forgotten but Sam Charters from the Folkaways label tracked him down to a small one-room apartment in Houston. Charters pulled out a bottle of gin and convinced him to record ten songs for him there and then, with a borrowed guitar, which appeared on an eponymous album, from which Hopkins' career re-emerged. If I have chosen this song from it, it is because it is a cover by one of his early mentors, Blind Lemon Jefferson, whom he met when he was eight years old, and was the man who made him love the blues above all things. Shortly after his rediscovery Hopkins played at Carnegie Hall alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
Automobile Blues (1949)
Townes Van Zandt was one of the biggest fans of the Texan guitarist and singer, whom he said was his biggest influence next to Bob Dylan. This Automobile Blues was one of the many Hopkins songs that he adapted… it was not for nothing that on his 1994 live album of covers, Roadsongs, he covered three of them. The original Hopkins recording dates back to 1949 and sees the artist alone with his acoustic guitar and voice. It's a simple but perfectly executed blues - and the way he recites "In your brand new automobile" had to be a huge influence on Dylan's Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.
Devil Is Watching You (1962)
Despite being recorded in the electric blues capital of Chicago in the early 1960s on the Vee-Jay label, this song sees Hopkins accompanied again by only his acoustic guitar, talking about one of the early bluesmen's favorite subjects, the devil.
Like most black men of his generation Hopkins worked several seasons in the cotton fields of the southern US. It was grueling work for ridiculous pay, and that suffering was reflected in his music, the blues. As Hopkins explains well in these opening verses: "Get a late on this Sunday evenin', Poor Lightin' gotta go home and take some rest […] You know I gotta pick cotton tomorrow Monday, Little girl you know that's gonna be a solid bet", it is impossible not to feel the sadness and exhaustion in his incredible voice.
Tom Moore’s Blues (1949)
Of course, there may be no song more descriptive of what those cotton fields of the 30's were like, and of the treatment of the black workers, than Tom Moore's Blues, on which both Hopkins, who first recorded it in 1949, and its author, Yank Thornton, changed the name to Tim Moore's Blues to avoid reprisals. This Tom Moore didn't seem to realize that slavery had been abolished in the 19th century. Both Hopkins and Thornton had worked on his plantation and knew what the guy was like, the song couldn't be more explicit: "Yes, you know I got a telegram this morning, boy, It read, it say, "Your wife is dead", I show it to Mr. Moore, he said, "Go ahead, go ahead. Moore, he said, "Go ahead, nigga You know you got to plough old Red" That white man says, "It's been raining, yes, and I'm way behind I may let you bury that woman, one of these old dinner times". Perhaps the power of the blues cannot be better defined, as this song continues to be heard, and revered, now that Tom Moore's plantation (and Tom Moore himself) are nothing but a bad memory...
Katie Mae (1946)
And we end at the beginning, with one of the first songs he recorded for Aladdin Records, along with his partner, pianist Wilson 'Thunder' Smith, on November 9, 1946. It was during those early sessions that their producer, Eddie Messner, decided that Sam Hopkins and Wilson Smith didn't have enough hooks and renamed them Lightnin' and Thunder. Here you can already appreciate a guitarist and singer in the fullness of his powers, with a Hopkins full of energy at the age of 34.