Lightnin' Hopkins - vocals, guitar
Long Gone Miles - guitar, vocals
Of all the Texas blues men, none were more prolific or influential than Sam Lightnin' Hopkins, who over the course of his career, recorded for nearly twenty different labels. A country blues artist of the highest caliber, who between his earliest recordings in 1946 to his death in 1982 recorded more than 85 albums, Hopkins saw the blues genre change considerably over the course his career. However, he never strayed far from his trademark soulful and mournful sound that he perfected on both acoustic and electric guitar. Hopkins' intricate boogie riffs resonated with musicians and fans alike and his seemingly boundless ability for lyrical improvisation made nearly every live performance a unique experience. This penchant for spontaneous creativity gave his performances a sense of immediacy and relevance unlike many of his peers and endeared him to audiences everywhere he went.
Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas in 1912, one of Abe and Frances Hopkins' six children. Upon the death of his father, when Hopkins was three years old, his mother relocated the family to Leona. By age eight, Hopkins made his first cigar-box guitar and within two years was performing locally with his brothers John Henry and Joel.
In 1920, Hopkins met the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson at a social function and struck up a friendship. Still a teenager, Hopkins also began working with his cousin, singer Texas Alexander and both Alexander and Jefferson would provide the early encouragement that would begin fueling his ambition. Hopkins musical partnership with his cousin was interrupted by a mid-1930s sentencing to the Houston County Prison Farm, but upon his release, Hopkins reunited with Alexander. In 1946, while performing as a duo, they caught the ear of Aladdin Records talent scout, Lola Anne Cullum. Uninterested in Alexander, Callum's vision was to introduce Hopkins to pianist Wilson "Thunder" Smith, recreate Hopkins as "Lightnin'" and have "Thunder & Lightnin'" become Aladdin recording artists. Hopkins and Smith's debut recording, "Katie Mae" was cut on November 9, 1946 and saw immediate regional success.
Hopkins recorded prolifically during the next few years, even scoring a national hit with "Shotgun Blues." Over the course of the next decade, he would record for many different labels, both as a solo artist and with a small rhythm section. In 1954, Hopkins recorded a remarkably influential batch of songs for the Herald label, where he was captured playing aggressive electric guitar. Along with drummer Ben Turner and bassist Donald Cook, the trio blasted through a series of up-tempo rockers that were groundbreaking in their ferocity. Far too aggressive for the times, the importance of these recordings would take another decade to be fully appreciated and by the end of the 1950s, Hopkins found himself back in Houston, with little promise of further pursuing a recording career.
It was right at this time (1960) that Hopkins encountered the music researcher Mack McCormick, who along with Chris Strachwitz, was in the process of launching the California-based record label Arhoolie. They presented Hopkins as a folk-blues artist; a role he was destined to play. That year, pioneering ethnomusicologist Sam Charters recorded Hopkins in his tiny apartment, using a borrowed guitar, resulting in an album for the higher profile Folkways Records label. The resulting album introduced Hopkins to a new generation of listeners and energized his career. Soon Hopkins was performing before white audiences on college campuses and touring extensively. Television appearances and an early 1960s appearance at New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall, alongside Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, raised his profile considerably and his career really took off. He recorded prolifically throughout the next decade, releasing highly influential releases for World Pacific, Vee-Jay, Candid, Arhoolie, Prestige and Verve, to name but a few. Switching back to acoustic guitar, Hopkins had become one of the shining lights of the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.
A frequent performer at Los Angeles' legendary Ash Grove club, this remarkably clean and intimate 1966 recording, captures Lightnin' Hopkins performing solo in front of an appreciative audience. This set not only includes a choice selection of stellar country blues material, but the intimacy and familiarity of The Ash Grove inspires Hopkins' sense of humor. He is obviously quite comfortable, interjecting funny stage banter throughout. For anyone interested in Hopkins' personality as well as his music, look no further as this set conveys plenty of both.
The set begins with Hopkins praising his young openers, The Rising Sons (a very interesting song from their set is featured here in the Concert Vault), which featured a young Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, who were no doubt watching this set from the audience. Hopkins then begins with some social and political commentary in a brief monologue referencing Martin Luther King. His set-opening number, "Luther King," seems improvised, beginning appropriately enough, with lines about Martin Luther King and the escalating Civil Rights struggle, but then focuses on the issue of white men fathering illegitimate children with black women. Despite opening on this rather serious note, there is nothing confrontational in Hopkins manner. In fact, he soon proves to be in a particularly jovial mood. As the performance continues, this becomes more obvious and taken as a whole, this set is yet another example of why Hopkins remains so compelling. Another entertaining monologue follows with Hopkins talking about his best friend Long Gone Miles, who was also in attendance, before tackling superb readings of "Airplane Blues" and one of his signature songs, "Mojo Hand."
Following these numbers, Hopkins cajoles Long Gone Miles to join him on stage. Hopkins and Miles then entertain the Ash Grove audience with their adept and inventive guitar playing and knack for lyrical improvisation. These two musicians borrow familiar lines (lyrics from "Early One Morning" and "Mighty Long Time" both surface here) to suit their purposes and seemingly make this number up as they go along. During the song, they trade verses, giving the song a sense of spontaneous newness, despite them playing content decades old. Hopkins' ability to never play a song the same way twice is a testament to his creativity and remains a big part of his appeal as a performer. This also made Hopkins a difficult person to accompany, but Long Gone Miles had plenty of experience in that regard and this duet is a pure delight.
The recording concludes with Hopkins in humorous form, first chatting up the audience while he retunes his guitar. He bums a cigarette and continues joking around with Long Gone Miles, before charging into "The Rub," featuring one of his most infectious lyrics. Here Hopkins speeds things up and takes extraordinarily nuanced solos while never letting go of the rhythmic pulse.
Throughout this set, one can clearly hear how strong an influence Hopkins was on both blues and rock forms, including the root sound that so captivated groups like John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and countless others to follow, fueling the 1960s British Blues boom. One can also detect Hopkin's influence on the folk and blues scene germinating in Bay Area coffeehouses around this time, with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead's Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen all deeply influenced by Hopkins. His popularity would wax and wane over the course of nearly five decades of recording, but he remains an essential influence on American music. As this Ash Grove recording makes clear, Hopkins was one of a kind and his style and originality has not diminished with time. (Bershaw)