STATUE FOR LIGHTNIN'
by Bob Bowman
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".
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.
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.
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
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...