Essential Listening: Lightnin Hopkins – Texas Blues Giant

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Texas Blues Giant

Dave Thomas writes as follows: A 3 disc set. 82 tracks in all. No information other than track listings on my copy – but with a beautiful wood-cut of Lightning on the paper slip-case. (£7.99 from Amazon)

Playing these CDs I realised that I’d first heard some of these tracks fifty years ago on the LP "Lightning Strikes". A school friend who was having guitar lessons had lent it to me and I never returned it! Initially I thought I’d played the record at the wrong speed and so increased the speed. The resulting Pinky and Perky sounds demonstrated that it was indeed meant to be that slow! I learned to like the sounds a lot – and still do.

Lightning was a true heir of Texas Blues having known, accompanied on guitar as a child, and (some say) led Blind Lemon Jefferson as a teenager. He came from a musical family, his brothers Joel and John Henry both played and made recordings. Lightning later played with his cousin Texas Alexander. Lightning got his name in 1946 when he was paired on a record with the pianist Wilson Smith, and both were named respectively Lightning and Thunder by a recording executive.

He’d been heard playing for tips on the streets of Houston and was taken to Los Angeles to record for the Aladdin label. Lightning used to be a feature on some Houston bus routes. Drivers would let him get on free to play to the passengers for tips.

Sam Hopkins has an unmistakable sound and feel, from getting attention with the opening chords to the familiar wryly clichéd ending (an upwardly rising – good evening friends). The tracks here include: Lightning solo, as a duo with a snare drum and small combo settings, some electric guitar and some electrified acoustic, sounding at times a little like his prolific recording contemporary John Lee Hooker.

The guitar playing has a full sound, Hopkins managing to play bass middle and treble. Extremely accomplished, rich in variation and nuance, at times taking wide excursions with inventive and satisfying resolutions. Unlike Hooker perhaps, his guitar playing has been an influence on many blues and rock musicians and his music contains references to any number of contemporary Blues sources and fashions, lots of boogie, shades of Dr Ross, Frankie Lee Sims and many others.

It seems that words and lyrics came easily to Lightning who could apparently go into a recording session and make the songs up on the spot. Certainly any live session would be enlivened by his quick responses to current events and a sharp wit.

Lightning spent most of his life in Texas, rarely traveling far out of his comfort zone around Dowling Street, Houston. As the years went by he was introduced to the coffee bar and college circuit, replacing his audience in local bars and drinking dens. Eventually he conquered a fear of flying and traveled to Europe with some of the Blues Tours.

The tracks are very varied, from his accompanying duet with the strident vocalist Ruth Ames on an Arthur Crudup inspired "Mean Mistreater" (track 23 on third CD), to standards like" Someday Baby", (track 10 on the first CD). These standards like "One Kind Favour", (track 21 first CD) are given a Lightning twist and made his own. "Sad news from Korea", (track 17 second CD) is a moving song and illustrates Lightning taking part in the old Blues tradition of topical commentary.

The songs often reflect his own hard drinking, hard-scrabble existence and are in turns funny, spiteful, witty, sentimental and sometimes throwaway. Lightning recorded more than any other Blues artist and some of the recordings he made illustrate this ability to turn a quick buck. His relative poverty however suggests the paucity of his rewards and goes some way to understanding his cynicism and antagonism.

Lightning Hopkins' place as one of the greatest musicians in the Blues pantheon is assured and I recommend the tracks on this collection, they are a musically-rich one-man history of the Blues.

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