Lightnin’ Hopkins embodied the blues. His singing, guitar playing, his physical appearance, personality, and demeanor, were the blues. One of the most recognizable bluesmen to come out of Texas, Lightnin’ Hopkins went on to stake out an enduring and productive career with his own spontaneous and eclectic style of haunting vocals and accompanying guitar.
Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, on March 15, 1912. 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. He married sometime in the 1920s, and had several children, but by the mid-1930s his wife, 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 recording�"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, which are highly regarded and available as “The Complete Aladdin Recordings.”
Over his career Hopkins recorded for nearly twenty different labels, including Gold Star Records in Houston. These were reissued under Arhoolie as “The Gold Star Sessions.” 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, and buried by the onslaught of rock and roll. It was not until 1959, when Hopkins began working with legendary producer Sam Chambers that his music began to reach a mainstream audience. Hopkins switched to an acoustic guitar and became a hit in the folk-blues revival of the 1960s. He was signed by Chris Strachwitz for his new Arhoolie label in this period, which really propelled his popularity in the genre.