Dating to four years after the close of the second World War, these two sides are a little past the typical era of material presented on Old Time Blues, but their excellence earns them a position among the ancients. They are the work of the artist who succeeded Blind Lemon Jefferson as “King of the Texas Blues”—and perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the earth—the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins.
The man who would become “Lightnin'” was born Sam John Hopkins on the fifteenth of March in either 1911 or 1912, in Centerville, Texas, located halfway between Dallas and Houston. He moved with his mother to neighboring Leona after the death of his father in 1915. While attending a church picnic in nearby Buffalo, Texas, around the year 1920, the eight-year-old Hopkins encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was providing music for the function. Jefferson instilled the blues in Hopkins, and the young boy was inspired to build a cigar box guitar for himself and start down the path of a musician. He began his musical career with Jefferson—who purportedly scolded the young musician for joining in his music-making, but allowed him the rare privilege of playing alongside him once he became aware of Hopkins’ age—and his cousin “Texas” Alexander.
By the middle of the 1920s, Hopkins was living as an itinerant musician, a streak which was cut short by a stretch spent in the Houston County Prison Farm, on charges unknown. After his release, Hopkins returned to his hometown and found work as a farmhand, giving up music for a short time. By the end of the Second World War, Hopkins had picked up his guitar once again and went back to Houston to sing on street corners. There, in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for the Los Angeles, California-based Aladdin Records. Hopkins traveled to California, and made his first records accompanying Texas piano man Wilson “Thunder” Smith, which gained him his nickname “Lightnin'”. Recording a total of forty-three sides for Aladdin between 1946 and ’48, Hopkins went on to make discs for numerous other labels over the course of his long career. He settled in Houston by the beginning of the 1950s, and began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label, producing some hit records such as “‘T’ Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm”.
Already popular with southern black audiences, Lightnin’ became endeared to the folk and blues revivalists thanks to the promotion of Texas musicologist Mack McCormick in 1959, and he appeared at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960. In 1962 he made the album Mojo Hand, introducing the titular song, which was to become a standard of his repertoire. In 1967, he was the star of Les Blank’s documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. He toured around the world, and made appearances on Austin City Limits in the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the leading country blues figures of his day. After performing professionally to great acclaim in five consecutive decades, Lightnin’ Hopkins died of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982.
Gold Star 662 was recorded around July of 1949 at 3104 Telephone Road in Houston, Texas. Lightnin’ Hopkins sings and accompanies himself on guitar; on side “A”, he is backed on slide guitar by Harding “Hop” Wilson.
Firstly, Hopkins sings “Jail House Blues”, a quintessential country blues song drawing inspiration from the “floating verses” endemic of the blues, and with the slide guitar accompaniment adding a bit of extra zest to Lightnin’s own playing.
One of Lightnin’s bigger hits of his early career, he sings and plays solo on “‘T’ Model Blues” (“Lord, my starter won’t start this mornin'”)—a masterful blues that sends a shiver right down my spine.