Lightnin’ Hopkins 1950 – 1960
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Lightning Blues Singer
Born in Centerville, Texas, Hopkins learned the blues when young in Buffalo, Texas from Blind Lemon Jefferson and his older cousin, country-blues singer Alger Texas Alexander. 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 at second shot at Houston in 1946. While singing on Dowling St. (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 LA 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 “oomph” in their names and dubbed Hopkins “Lightnin'” and Wilson “Thunder”. Hopkins recorded more sides for Aladdin in 1947 but soon grew homesick. He returned to Houston and began recording for the Gold Star label. during the late 40s and 1950s Hopkins rarely performed outside Texas.However, he recorded prolifically. Occasionally traveling to the Mid-West and Eastern US for recording sessions and concert appearances.
It has been estimated that he recorded between 800 and 1000 songs during his career. He performed regular at clubs in and around Houston, particularly in Dowling St. where he had first been discovered. By the mid to late 1950s his prodigious output of very fine quality recordings had gained him a following among African Americans and blues music aficionados.
In 1959 Hopkins was contacted by folklorist Mack McCormick who hoped to bring Lightnin’ 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.
Lightnin Hopkins Best Album
Hopkins debuted at Carnegie Hall October 14, 1960 apearing alongside Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. In 1960, he signed to Tradition Records. Solid recordings followed including his masterpiece song Mojo Hand in 1960. By the early 1960s Lightnin’ Hopkins reputation as one of the most compelling blues/R&B performers was cemented. He had finally earned the success and recognition which were so long overdue. In 1968, Hopkins recorded his best 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 extensively, playing at major folk festivals and at folk clubs and on college campuses in US and internationally. Later in the 1970s he left Texas less often.
Lightnin’s 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 Lightnin’s 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 all the usual subjects of The Blues. He did however deal with these subjects with humor and good nature. Many of his songs are filled with hilarious double entendres and he was known for his humorous introductions. Hopkins was a great influence on many local musicians around Houston and Austin, Texas in the 1950s and 1960s. His recordings from the early 1960s reveal a lead guitar style that anticipates the popular blues based rock guitar of the later 1960’s. Jimi Hendrix reportedly became interested in blues music listening to Lightnin Hopkins records with his father. He was an influence on Jimmie Vaughan’s work and on the vocals and blues style of RonPigpen McKernan, the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead until 1972. He was also an important influence on Townes Van Zandt, the Texan folk/blues songwriter and performer, who often performed Hopkins numbers in his live performances. Doyle Bramhall II is another Texas artist who was influenced by Hopkins, as evidenced by a tattoo of Lightning on his upper left arm. A song named after him was recorded by R.E.M. on their album Document.
The Houston Chronicle included Lightnin’ Hopkins in their list of 100 Tall Texans, 100 important Texans who influenced the world. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum included Hopkins in a 100 Tall Texans exhibit that opened in September 2006. The display includes Lightnin’s Guild Starfire electric guitar and performance video. Hopkins Gibson J-160e guitar is on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.