Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins was born on 15 March 1912 in Centerville, Texas, a small farming town north of Houston. His father, Abe – who died when Sam was still a baby – was a musician, and so were Sam’s sister and four brothers.
He was encouraged by his mother to play the organ at the family’s home church services, but his first real musical influence was his guitar-playing brother, John Henry, later a noted bluesman himself.
At the age of eight, Sam built himself a guitar, cutting a hole in a cigar box, nailing on a plank for the neck and stringing the thing with chicken wire.
He took the guitar to a Baptist picnic in nearby Buffalo one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1920, and there encountered his second major influence – the church association had hired the great Blind Lemon Jefferson to sing at the picnic.
Sam stole up to the platform where Jefferson was performing and attempted to play along. Jefferson, annoyed by Hopkins’ noodling, stopped short and bellowed: “Boy, you got to play it right“. Lesson number one.
Sam learned how to sing from his cousin, Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander, a vocalist who’d previously worked with the celebrated New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson (another influence on Hopkins’ style).
After a few years of playing bars around Texas for tips, he teamed up with Alexander in the late 1920s to work the streets and dives of Houston. The two performed all over East Texas well into the 1930s.
Being black, Lightnin’ sometimes found himself under arrest and, lacking bail, dispatched to the Houston County Prison Farm and a road gang to atone for his drinking, gambling and fighting.
He also worked intermittently as a farmhand throughout most of his musical career and knew well the degradation of the rural black labourer’s life.
In 1946, Hopkins and a barrel-house piano player named Wilson “Thunder” Smith set out for Los Angeles where they recorded some sides for Aladdin Records.
Hopkins returned to Houston in 1947 and quickly came to the attention of Bill Quinn, for whose Gold Star Records he cut a classic single, Short Haired Woman backed with Big Mama Jump. It sold more than 40,000 copies. Baby Please Don’t Go sold 80,000.
His string of hits on Gold Star spanned two years, but then while in New York City he casually (and not for the last time) cut a bunch of songs from another company. Gold Star dropped him.
Over the next decade, he recorded for several labels in New York and Los Angeles, cutting some of his stronger sides for the Houston-based Herald label. The subject he pursued in his songs, more often than not, was hard times – and his gnarled sharecropper’s hands and shackle-scarred legs testified to the intimate nature of his knowledge.
But Lightnin’ never sang a song the same way twice, and this led to problems . . .
One company, he complained, recorded several different takes of one of his tunes and released the result as several different singles. After that, he insisted on being paid per take, in the studio.
Lightnin’ broke through in 1959, playing both the University of California Folk Festival at Berkeley and Carnegie Hall in New York a year later. He also became a staple on the folk circuit.
An automobile accident in 1970 put him in a neck brace and circumscribed his touring schedule, and in the summer of 1981, he underwent surgery for cancer of the oesophagus. He played his last professional engagement in November at Tramps in New York.
Weakened by his cancer, which was terminal, he succumbed to pneumonia. He was admitted to hospital in Houston on Tuesday 26 January 1982 and still seemed strong in spirit – even attempting to sing for his nurses.
But at 9:00 AM local time on Saturday 30 January, Lightnin’ Hopkins died.
The last of the legendary country bluesmen had a voice as warm as a grandfather’s goodnight whisper, and when he’d tip back his porkpie hat, paste a cigarette on his grizzled lip and pluck some heart-piercing blues vignette out of the air, you could almost feel the heat shimmering off Highway 75, out in the sun-baked red clay and cotton country of East Texas, where he was born.