Lightnin’ Hopkins, the pride of Centerville, Texas, was never a performer that fit neatly into a historical narrative. For at least 20 years, he was a guitar slinger who hardly played outside of the bars in Houston’s historic Third Ward neighborhood. He was too young and inexperienced to have been swept up in the race records boom of the ’30s at Paramount Records along with Skip James and Robert Johnson, and too old to have been part of the Vanguard Records boom of the late ’60s alongside Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. But that didn’t mean he was working in complete obscurity: As noted in Alan Govenar’s comprehensive Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues, Hopkins is likely the most recorded blues musician of all time. He was never pinned down by a record label and would record for any outfit who would have him for the better part of 40 years.
Arriving at the time when studio equipment was cheap and record labels sprouted like weeds following World War II — and unlike, say, Robert Johnson, whose output was limited to two dozen songs — Lightnin’ Hopkins’ discography takes up 50 pages of Govenar’s book, tracking sessions from 1946 through 1981, right before his death in January, 1982. In between, you can throw a dart at his catalog and hit transformative electric blues that captures the frantic energy of the Houston bars he often played, or hit groundbreaking acoustic work that adheres to no time signature a rational person can track. He was everything and nothing at once — an unknowable figure who could wiggle out of any label you try to put on him.
Hopkins was a walking jukebox: a repository of blues lyrics that he often repurposed from songs he heard in his youth. He often improvised his own blues, chronicling everything from the woes of his romantic life to the difficulty of catching a raccoon who terrorized his backyard. He never wrote anything down, and never played anything the same way twice, sometimes not even the verses in the same song. That meant that much of his music was performed without a backing band, since he frustrated drummers and bassists around the country. In the ’50s, he was one of the few blues musicians — along with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — who had crossover appeal. They were the favorites in the so-called “race records” market in urbanizing Black neighborhoods, but were also favorites of the budding new American left, the youth movement that willed the folk revival into place. In the ’60s, they’d book many of the blues musicians of the ’30s and ’40s at festivals and record their comeback albums.
Hopkins was more prolific than any of the other blues musicians riding the revival in the early ’60s, though; in a single four-year span, he released the seminal Lightnin’ Hopkins on the folkie label Folkways, Country Blues on the smaller, but folkier Tradition, Lightnin’ on the blues imprint of the jazz label Prestige, Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins on the blues label Arhoolie and finally, the album that brings us here today, Lightnin’ Strikes on the urbane Chicago label — and original U.S. home of the Beatles — Vee-Jay records. He could bounce between styles and labels in the same month, and on the sessions for Lightnin’ Strikes, he switched between a band and playing by himself, both his modes captured in a single album. By the time you think you figured Hopkins out, he was onto the next, ready to sing about his woes to anyone who’d hear him, ready to forget how the last time sounded.
Sam Hopkins was born in either 1911 or 1912 in Centerville, Texas. The date is hard to pin down properly: Hopkins himself claims 1912, while the Social Security Administration claims he was born in 1911. Either way, Centerville wasn’t a kind place for the grandson of slaves to grow up; his family worked as sharecroppers, eking out a meager existence for much of Hopkins’ childhood. One of the only benefits of living in Centerville was that the city was located almost directly halfway between Houston and Dallas, which meant that it was a stop on Texas musicians’ touring circuit, and young Hopkins spent his youth at local dances played by Texas country and blues luminaries making their way between the metropolises.
It’s here — as it often does with blues musicians — where biography and mythmaking intermingle. According to many biographies and interviews over the years, Hopkins’ music career started at age eight, when he showed up to an outside performance by the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. Toting his guitar with him, Hopkins starts playing in the back of the crowd, and Jefferson hears him, inviting him onstage, where the two of them play some of Jefferson’s hits, and Hopkins is on his way in the blues. It’s too good a story to check out, but as Govenar notes, “Sam was able to elevate his own stature and lay a cornerstone in the myth he was creating for himself.”
By the time he was a teenager, Hopkins had performed in juke joints for real money, done real time in jail and on chain gangs and began touring with Texas blues progenitor Texas Alexander. By his early 30s, he’d become a mainstay in the Third Ward of Houston’s Black neighborhood, a legend in the barroom and juke joints, and would record his first records for Aladdin Records, whose executive is credited with naming him Lightnin’. They called Hopkins and his backing player Wilson Smith “Thunder ’n’ Lightnin’” as a way to drum up publicity for the duo when they traveled to Los Angeles to record. It would stick to Hopkins for the rest of his life.
Trying to describe what makes Hopkins special is more diffuse than when describing the behemoths like Muddy or Wolf or B.B.; his greatness is harder to see on first glance, and harder to appreciate. Even on his slower earlier songs, his guitar playing is distinct and fast-fingered; his riffs might amble, but his fingers are jumping around like Chopin’s on a piano. He’d bring a sense of fast picking to blues that would ultimately influence entire waves of Texas bluesmen, chiefly Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top. His phrasing is sometimes in the normal 12-bar blues structure but often it’s not: Sometimes it’s 14 bars, sometimes it’s 10 bars or fewer. He’s avant-garde, but still sounds normal enough that it’s not crazy to hear him on a modern Spotify blues playlist. His tempos often matched the crawling, sticky heat of a Houston summer, too. The way DJ Screw would move to Houston and take rap’s sound in a wild, new direction, Hopkins did the same in the ’40s with the blues.
During the early ’50s, Hopkins struggled to break through the Texas music scene, and at that point, had rarely played outside Texas. He’d jaunt up to Cincinnati or to California to record, but he barely was able to book himself shows on the trips there and back, due to his fame being mostly relegated to Dowling Street in the Third Ward. In 1954, he recorded what would be his last single for five years and pawned his guitars, sure that his life in the blues was over, and that the sorrow he brought himself trying to make it as a recording artist was for naught.
If it wasn’t for the work of a few dedicated blues fans, Hopkins’ career might have died there, down in Houston. Sam Charters was an academic and researcher writing what would become The Country Blues, the first book to truly try to catalog the blues, when in the mid-’50s, he was introduced to the music of Hopkins. While on a trip to Houston, he and fellow blues nut and historian Mack McCormick started searching for Hopkins, trying to record some of his songs for the Folkways album that would accompany the release of Charters’ book. After searching Dowling Street’s watering holes, they finally found Hopkins, who told them his guitars were in a pawn shop. Charters and McCormick only had enough money to bail one of Hopkins’ guitars out of its pawn prison one morning, so they chose the acoustic guitar. That same afternoon, they had Hopkins lay down the 10 tracks that would become 1959’s Lightnin’ Hopkins, his groundbreaking Folkways LP. It wasn’t quite a comeback, in the same way Son House or Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt would “come back,” since Hopkins was only out of music for under five years, at least on wax. But the album helped kick off the revival in acoustic blues, and soon the “rediscovery” process would happen for a number of other blues artists.
Hopkins was even more prolific than he had been in his earlier run; he’d release something like 30 LPs during the ’60s alone. He knew from his five years off that music could be taken away from him at any time, so he hit the studio with the same vengeance he hit the folk touring circuit. He was young enough to truly capitalize on the blues revival in a way that the generation older than him wasn’t able to; he was 50 (or 51) when Lightnin’ Strikes came out, a decade younger, at least, than any of his blues revival contemporaries.
Hopkins wasn’t just a favorite of the white folk fans, though; he was a favorite of the urban Black blues audiences of Dallas, Houston and New Orleans as well. His acoustic records could get him booked at Carnegie Hall opening for Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, while his electric records got him booked in LA and Chicago, where he linked up with the folks at Vee-Jay Records. Vee-Jay was one of America’s first successful Black-owned record labels, as it catered to blues and R&B fans with artists like John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. They were also the first U.S. label to take a flier on a U.K. band called The Beatles. Hopkins was so prolific in those days he popped into Gold Star Studios — the same Houston studio that would launch George Jones — and recorded often. A couple of his one-off Gold Star sessions (a 1961 single session with a band, and a longer solo session) were turned into his Vee-Jay debut. Called Lightnin’ Strikes, it wasn’t the only album title that would play on that specific pun, as another would follow in 1966 on Folkways, after Vee-Jay would close up shop. But the 1962 Strikes captures everything that made Hopkins so exciting in the early ’60s in what resembled a single weather system, encompassing his modes and moods as fully as he’d allow them to be grasped on a single slab of vinyl.
Lightnin’ Strikes opens with Hopkins’ biggest hit on Vee-Jay, one of two cuts on the album that have a backing band, “Got Me A Louisiana Woman.” Backed by Elmore Nixon on piano, Robert Ingram on drums and a bassist forgotten to the sands of time, Hopkins spools out a tale of a woman who cooks his regular meals in Louisiana, and how good that makes him feel, extolling her virtues and cooking abilities. The verses are irregularly shaped in length, and the band sounds ever on the verge of falling out of step with Hopkins. But, the song showcases the main contribution to blues guitar that Hopkins made that was copied by Texas bluesmen like ZZ Top: the turnaround. No one could come into and out of solos or verses better than Hopkins; his turnaround riffs sound like a football player tiptoeing a sideline, like a tightrope walker going to one foot in the middle of a string between two tall structures. The song is audibly in danger of crashing into the side of a building at least four times, but Hopkins brings it over the rails and makes a sharp turn each time.
The rest of the album is mostly Hopkins alone, talking his blues over his spacious riffs, sounding like the Texas prairies he grew up in. Govenar notes that Hopkins was adept at making himself sound sad and pathetic on record, to better match the down-and-out plight of his audience, and that’s borne out in Lightnin’ Strikes. He’s begging to come home after being put out for being a dog on “Want to Come Home,” he’s homeless and aimless on “Walkin’ ’Round in Circles” and decries the bleakness of East Coast weather on “Heavy Snow.” He memorializes a particularly evasive racoon who foiled his childhood dog on “Coon is Hard to Catch,” and takes some time to decry the American military industrial complex on “War Is Starting Again,” the only other song to feature a band, and a classic in the anti-Vietnam protests of the early ’60s. Vee-Jay opted to add a hefty amount of reverb to these songs after they were delivered from George Jones producer Pappy Daily, but it wouldn’t take much to believe Hopkins recorded this album inside an abandoned grain silo, where he chose to live out his days after being rejected and dejected.
Lightnin’ Strikes was the only LP Hopkins made for Vee-Jay, as he never stayed with one label long anyway, and he’d spend his final 20 years, before succumbing to esophageal cancer in 1982, ripping and recording around the country and building a mammoth body of work. Lightnin’ Strikes is but a single cloud in the atmosphere of his work, but it provides an entry point, a single portrait of the artist as a blues iconoclast. Lightnin’ could be anything you wanted him to be — the acoustic blues troubadour, the hardened city slicker playing electric riffs, the old bluesman down on his luck — but take him as he is on Lightnin’ Strikes: just a bluesman being himself, in his entirety.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.