Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch”series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
HOPKINS, SAM [LIGHTNIN’] (1911–1982).Sam (Lightnin’) Hopkins, blues singer and guitarist, was born in Centerville, Texas, on March 15, probably in 1911. Though some sources give his year of birth as 1912, his Social Security application listed the year as 1911. He was the son of Abe and Frances (Sims) Hopkins. After his father died in 1915, the family (Sam, his mother and five brothers and sisters) moved to Leona. At age eight he made his first instrument, a cigar-box guitar with chicken-wire strings. By ten he was playing music with his cousin, Texas Alexander, and Blind Lemon Jefferson , who encouraged him to continue. Hopkins also played with his brothers, blues musicians John Henry and Joel.
By the mid-1920s Sam had started jumping trains, shooting dice, and playing the blues anywhere he could. Apparently he married Elamer Lacey sometime in the 1920s, and they had several children, but by the mid-1930s Lacey, frustrated by his wandering lifestyle, took the children and left Hopkins. He served time at the Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s, and after his release he returned to the blues-club circuit. In 1946 he had his big break and first studio session—in Los Angeles for Aladdin Recordings. On the record was a piano player named Wilson (Thunder) Smith; by chance he combined well with Sam to give him his nickname, Lightnin’. The album has been described as “downbeat solo blues” characteristic of Hopkins’s style. Aladdin was so impressed with Hopkins that the company invited him back for a second session in 1947. He eventually made forty-three recordings for the label.
Over his career Hopkins recorded for nearly twenty different labels, including Gold Star Records in Houston. On occasion he would record for one label while under contract to another. In 1950 he settled in Houston, but he continued to tour the country periodically. Though he recorded prolifically between 1946 and 1954, his records for the most part were not big outside the Black community. It was not until 1959, when Hopkins began working with legendary producer Sam Charters, that his music began to reach a mainstream White audience. Hopkins switched to an acoustic guitar and became a hit in the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.