month, on the 20th anniversary of his death, blues singer Lightnin'
Hopkins will get the recognition that often eluded him in the land
where he was born.
Once described by Texas Monthly as the state's best blues singer of
the last century, Hopkins will be immortalized January 30 with a statue
on Crockett's Camp
Street, where he played as a kid and performed for tips in a barber
shop and feed store.
Despite his nickname, Hopkins didn't play faster than other blues
singers. Nor did he invent a new style, make a lot or money, or produce
a series of hits. "What he did was play country blues--raw as
rotgut, real as rent, and as heartbreaking and hilarious as the world
around him," said music writer John Ratliff.
was born Sam Hopkins at Centerville
on March 15, 1902. When his father died, his mother moved the family
-- five brothers and sisters -- to Leona. At the age of eight, Hopkins
made a cigar-box guitar with chicken wire strings. By ten he was playing
with his cousin, Alger (Texas) Alexander, and Blind
Lemon Jefferson, who encouraged him. Hopkins got into trouble
with the law and served time in the Houston County Prison Farm in
the 1930s, but soon returned to the blues-club circuit. In 1946 got
his first big break in Los Angeles when he made a record with piano
player Wilson (Thunder) Smith. The combination led to the nickname
of "Thunder and Lightning".
Over his career, Lightnin' made records for nearly 20 different record
companies. In the l950s, he began working with legendary producer
Sam Chambers and his music began to reach a mainstream white audience.
He switched to an acoustic guitar and became a hit during the folk-blues
revival of the 1960s.
Hopkins played at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seger and Joan Baez and
toured with the American Folk Blues Festival. By the end of the sixties
he was opening for such bands as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
He also played before Queen Elizabeth in a command performance and
worked on the soundtrack for the movie Sounder.
But in the Texas Bible belt where he was born, Hopkins' music was
seldom appreciated, probably because he sang about women, fighting,
gambling, and prison life. He died in 1982 and was buried in Houston.
rightful place in East Texas
history could have been overlooked if two cowboy musicians -- Guy
and Pipp Gillette of Crockett
-- had not discovered that their grandfather and father's lives were
intertwined with Hopkins' career.
The Crockett barber
shop and feed store where Hopkins played was owned by Hoyt Porter,
the Gillette brothers¹ grandfather. Their father, Guy Gillette, was
a former Broadway actor and nationally known photographer who once
shot Hopkins¹ picture at Carnegie Hall.
The Gillette brothers -- who turned Porter's old store into the Camp
Street Cafe where some of Texas' best cowboy and blues singers
play weekend gigs -- were fascinated by Hopkins' roots in East
Texas, as well as his spontaneous storytelling and his
unpredictable guitar playing.
They persuaded the Piney Woods Arts Association and Crockett
businessmen to commission a statue of Hopkins by Crockett
artist Jim Jeffries.
On January 30, Hopkins' daughter, Annie Mae Box of Crockett,
will join some of Texas' leading bluesmen in the dedication of a memorial
to the man who during his life was the walking embodiment of the blues.
13, 2002 Column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Association
and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore.)
Historical Marker for Lightnin' by Bob Bowman
The news outlets from Houston reported recently that a Texas Historical
Marker has been dedicated to Lightnin' Hopkins, whose blues music
became famous between 1946 and the 1970s...
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