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Cream of The Crate: Album review # 199 – Lightning Hopkins: The Gold Star Series Vol 1

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cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1

 

  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

 

"The blues is born with you. When you born in this world, you were born with the blues. - (Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1967) .. .. .. "Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins, one of the great country blues singers and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players." - (New York Times Obituary, Feb 1, 1982 ) .. .. .. "These are not necessarily the best known Lightnin' Hopkins tracks, but in many ways that makes this CD even more valuable." - (This review)

This is album retro-review number 199 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called
“Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.

As I fast approach my 200th review I decided it was time to dip into my blues collection and bringing forward yet another giant among the many wonderful men and women who have written and sung the blues.

The artist is Lightnin’ Hopkins and the CD album is titled – The Gold Star Series (Vol 1). It was released on the Arhoolie label and was released in 1991 with the identifying code of ARHCD 330.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
CD label – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The album has 24 tracks. It is interesting that the label has him identified as Lightning Hopkins (with a “g”) when it is in fact – Lightnin’ Hopkins.

A bit of a blunder from a major company like this.

Sam (Lightnin’) Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, on March 15, probably in 1911. Now while 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.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
The Hopkins family home in the early 1930’s – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

At age eight he made his first instrument, a cigar-box guitar with chicken-wire strings.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Joel, Lightnin’ and John Henry – [CLICK to enlarge]
By ten the young Hopkins was exposed to quality blues music and while initially learning from his older cousin, country-blues singer Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander, he was also heavily and directly influenced by an absolute legend in Blind Lemon Jefferson, who encouraged the young Hopkins to persevere.

Hopkins also played with his brothers, blues musicians John Henry and Joel. In fact in an interview for a documentary on him, Hopkins recalled his childhood: “I was eight years old when I made my first guitar. I got the screen wire off the screen door to make my little sound on my little box. I made it out of a cigar box, I kept champing on it and I’d ask my brother to let me play his guitar. He said, no boy, you can’t play this guitar.

He never did decide to let me play his guitar. So he told me one day, boy don’t you fool with my guitar. But it wasn’t hanging too high from the wall. I got a chair and got it down.

One day they went to the field. They come in and I had it down on the floor, laying on the floor but I was picking a tune, and he heard the guitar and he walked in and it was playing so good he just stood there and listened. He liked it so well he said didn’t I tell you not to bother that guitar? His name was John Henry. My brother, oldest brother, so he said you can have it. So that’s how good the music sounded to him.”

His unique style developed after spending many hours playing informally without a backing band. In fact his distinctive style often included playing, in effect, bass, rhythm, lead, percussion, and vocals, all at the same time.

His musical phrasing would often include a long low note at the beginning, the rhythm played in the middle range, then the lead in the high range.

By playing this quickly – with occasional slaps of the guitar – the effect of bass, rhythm, percussion and lead would be created.

In the mid-1930s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm; the offence for which he was imprisoned is unknown. On release he settled in Houston but failed to make an impression and returned to Centerville

He tried again in Houston in 1946 and while he and Alexander were playing there in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum of Los Angeles’, Aladdin Records.

Now although Alexander would not actually make it out to L.A. she did in fact convinced Hopkins to travel to Los Angeles, where he accompanied the pianist Wilson Smith.

The duo recorded twelve tracks in their first sessions in 1946. An Aladdin executive decided the pair needed more dynamism in their names and dubbed Hopkins “Lightnin’” and Wilson “Thunder“. In fact Hopkins‘ fast finger style is very distinct.

In 1959, the blues researcher Mack McCormick contacted Hopkins, hoping to bring him to the attention of a broader musical audience engaged in the folk revival.

McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences first in Houston and then in California. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960, alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, performing the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep“.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
1959

 

In 1960, he signed with Tradition Records. The recordings which followed included his song “Mojo Hand” in 1960.

In 1968, Hopkins recorded the album Free Form Patterns, backed by the rhythm section of the psychedelic rock band 13th Floor Elevators.

Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, he released one or sometimes two albums a year and toured, playing at major folk music festivals and at folk clubs and, on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally.

He toured extensively in the United States and played a six-city tour of Japan in 1978.

In regard to life partners, Hopkins actually had a total of three wives.

It appears his first marriage was around 1928. In fact when Hopkins married Anna Mae Box, he and his first wife hired themselves out to Tom Moore, a farmer whose callousness Hopkins immortalized in the song, “Tom Moore’s Blues.” “

You know,” he sang, “I got a telegram this morning/It say your wife is dead/I showed it to Mr. Moore he says/‘Go ahead nigger, you know you gotta plow a ridge’/That white man said ‘It’s been rainin’/Yes sir I’m way behind/I may let you bury that woman/On your dinner time.”

I’ll discuss that track later in this review.

Hopkins was certainly one for the ladies, and claimed he had a total of 10 common-in-law wives, but it appears as though he may have only married three and according to his heirs, they never found any records of formal divorces.

In 1943 Hopkins married his third wife, Antoinette Charles, and moved to a large farm north of Dallas, where he worked for a time as a sharecropper.

Around 1946, he was given a new guitar by a family friend, “Uncle” Lucian Hopkins. That inspired Sam to move back to Houston where he teamed up with his old partner Tex Alexander to play the local beer joints.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Lightnin’ and Antoinette – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

There are so many half-told stories about him, but what is indisputable is that Hopkins was Houston’s poet-in-residence for 35 years and that he recorded more albums than any other bluesman.

Numbers vary from publication to publication but it appears he recorded no less than:

  • 87 albums
  • 91 singles and EPs
  • 134 compilations

Hopkins was also great influence on many local musicians around Houston and Austin, Texas in the 1950s and 1960s. He was an influence on Jimmie Vaughan’s work and, more significantly, on the vocals and blues style of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead until 1972.

He was also an important influence on Townes Van Zandt, the Texan folk/blues songwriter and performer, who often performed Hopkins numbers in his live performances.

Doyle Bramhall II is another Texas artist who was influenced by Hopkins, as evidenced by a tattoo of lightning on his upper left arm.

Jimi Hendrix reportedly became interested in blues music listening to Lightning Hopkins records with his father.

Finally, a song named after him was recorded by R.E.M. on their album Document.

The Houston Chronicle included Hopkins in their list of “100 Tall Texans”; 100 important Texans that influenced the world.

The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum included Hopkins in a 100 Tall Texans exhibit that opened in September 2006. The display includes Lightning’s Guild Starfire electric guitar and a performance video.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Lightnin’ Hopkins playing in the Sputnik bar, Houston Texas: 1961 – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Hopkins’ Gibson J-160e guitar is now on display at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

So we come to this CD – which in fact consists of original recordings by Bill Quinn at Gold Star Studios in Houston, Texas between 1947 and 1950.

Personnel: Lightnin’ Hopkins – vocals, guitar and organ; Frankie Lee Sims & Joel Hopkins (Lightnin’s brother) both on guitar

Track Listing

1. Short Haired Woman
2. Baby Please Don’t Go
3. Going Home Blues (Going Back And Talk To Mama)
4. Automobile Blues
5. Big Mama Jump
6. Loretta Blues
7. Seems Funny Baby
8. Thunder And Lightning Blues (Coolin’ Board Blues)
9. Grosebeck Blues
10. Tim Moore’s Farm
11. Lightning Boogie
12. Traveler’s Blues
13. Goodbye Blues
14. Unkind Blues
15. Fast Life Woman
16. Zolo Go (Zydeco)
17. You Don’t Know
18. Treat Me Kind
19. Somebody Got To Go
20. Death Bells
21. Mad With You
22. Airplane Blues
23. Racetrack Blues
24. Unsuccessful Blues
cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Rear cover – [CLICK to enlarge]


There are so many great tracks on this album, and certainly sometimes the surface noise is noticeable, but we need to remember many of the older blues tracks no longer existed on recording tape, and so are lifted from 78 rpm records.

In the case of the Arhoolie production, they claim that all the selections on this CD were recorded directly onto an acetate coated 16″ metal based master.

However the actual source of much of the material is a little unclear as the producers have noted when a track was taken directly from an original acetate OT or an LP, but not differentiating between them.

What is noteworthy is that the royalties from these tracks are paid to Hopkins widow,

We will kick off with track 2 – itself an absolute blues classic – Baby Please Don’t Go.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
[CLICK to enlarge]
This is often credited to Big Joe Williams but is in dispute and it is one of those tracks that writers say the origins are long lost. However the label of the original 78rpm record shows the composer as J. Williams.

Mind you it is not unusual for blues singers to adapt and adopt old slave songs and folk songs whose origins are unknown, as their own.

What can be said definitively is that It IS a “blues standard” with such notable artists, other than Hopkins, having recorded it including John Lee Hooker, Charlie McCoy and Big Bill Broonzy.

Of course when the 1960’s came and the British drew inspiration from the American Blues standards, Baby Please Don’t Go became the staple of many white bands of which Them, probably put out the best version.

But here with Lightnin’ Hopkins we get a wonderfully clean recording of this blues track sung with the passion and intonation by of one of the greatest blues singers ever.

Check out his fingering style which is putting it simply – brilliant!

Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go, down to New Orleans
You know I love you so

Before I be your dog
Before I be your dog
Before I be your dog
I get you way’d out here, and let you walk alone

Turn your lamp down low
Turn your lamp down low
Turn your lamp down low
I beg you all night long, baby, please don’t go

You brought me way down here
You brought me way down here
You brought me way down here
‘Bout to Rolling Forks, you treat me like a dog

Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go
Baby, please don’t go, back the New Orleans
I beg you all night long

Before I be your dog
Before I be your dog
Before I be your dog
I get you way’d out here, and let you walk alone

You know your man down gone
You know your man down gone
You know your man down gone
To the country farm
With all the shackles on

Baby Please Don’t Go

Track 5 is Big Mama Jump.

It kicks off with Lightnin’ declaring, that, this aint the Little Mama Boogie but it’s the same as . . . and then he breaks into a rather frantic uptempo boogie.

However the vocal delivery is more in the ‘talking blues’ style, where the lyrics are delivered as a narration. The track was on the other side of the first Gold Star blues release – Short Haired Woman.

Big Mama Jump

Track 9Grosebeck Blues has sufficient surface noise to suggest this was a track lifted from an original 78RPM. 

The track was one Lightnin’ learned from Texas Alexander. Hopkins actually recorded four versions of this track, with the first being a very short version that leaves out most of the lyrics, the second and third are full versions but different to each other.  The story goes, the second version was the strongest of thm all but the original acetate was in such bad shape it was unusable.

The producers of this album have used the fourth version but don’t say why!

Grosebeck Blues

The following track, track 10Tim Moore’s Farm, was actually written by some farm hands that worked for a Mr. Moore in Grimes County, Texas.

Over time various local versions were sung about various incidents and in the end Lightnin’ chose the most universally understood bits, rearranged the track, recorded it and made it into a commercial record.

This alone is unusual because it was rare for regional topical protest ballads to make it onto commercial releases. This is because the issues they dealt with were really of no interest to the wider community.

However Lightnin’, for his own reasons, went ahead with it and it is said that he stood his ground when Tom Moore – the focus of the song, apparently turned up at a dance in Concord Texas where Lightnin‘ was playing, and told him never to sing that song around there again.

Lightnin’ however was seldom afraid of anyone and took no notice. This is an absolutely delightful piece of blues which interestingly has Tom Moore referred to as Tim Moore in the song.

Yeah, you know it ain’t but the one thing, you know
This black man done was wrong
Yeah, you know it ain’t but the one thing, you know
This black man done was wrong
Yes, you know I moved my wife and family down
On Mr.Tim Moore’s farm

Yeah, you know Mr.Tim Moore’s a man
He don’t never stand and grin
He just said, “Keep out of the graveyard, I’ll save you from the pen”
You know, soon in the morning, he’ll give you scrambled eggs
Yes, but he’s liable to call you so soon
You’ll catch a mule by his hind legs

Yes, you know I got a telegram this morning, boy
It read, it say, “Your wife is dead”
I show it to Mr.Moore, he said, “Go ahead, nigger
You know you got to plow old Red”

That white man says, “It’s been raining, yes, and I’m way behind
I may let you bury that woman, one of these old dinner times”
I told him, “No, Mr.Moore, somebody’s got to go”
He says, “If you ain’t able to plow, Sam
Stay up there and grab your hoe”

Track 16 is about as different a track that could be on this CD.

Titled Zylo Go, it is actually a phonetic misspelling of Zydeco and features Lightnin’ playing organ.

Zydeco music would become very popular through such artists as Clifton Chenier, but here we have Hopkins playing the style several years before Chenier and others popularising the style.

In it Lightnin’ is telling a story of attending a Zydeco dance. It is thought that when Bill Quinn, who operated the studio where Lightnin’ did most of his recording, heard the song he had no idea what Zydeco was or how to spell it, so he simple wrote it down as an incorrect phonetic title – “Zyle Go”!

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Bill Quinn – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The original 78 RPM did not have the spoken introduction by Lightnin’ and, his basic organ playing is an attempt to replicate the sound of a piano accordion which of course is a mainstay instrument of Zydeco music.

So what we have here is one of the very first Zydeco recordings ever recorded.

Zylo Go [Zydeco]

The final track, track 16 – really should never have come about.

Unsuccessful Blues resulted from a misunderstanding between Bill Quinn and Lightnin’s wife.

It seems as though Bill paid Antoinette for a track that Lightnin’ had never actually recorded. On hearing this, Lightnin’ decided he had better make a recording but, there was no one around but a small jazz combo, so Lightnin’ implored them to help him out and thus this spontaneous track was recorded.

If you listen carefully you will hear a finger bass being played, quite an unusual accompaniment for Lightnin’s music.

The track ends abruptly, and no reason is given for this.

Unsuccessful Blues

Hopkins died of oesophageal cancer in Houston on January 30, 1982, at the age of 69.

His obituary in the New York Times described him as “one of the great country blues singers and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players“.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
[CLICK to enlarge]


Here lies Lightnin’
Who stood famous and tall
He didn’t hesitate to give his all

The tracks on this album are not necessarily the best known Lightnin’ Hopkins tracks, but in many ways that makes this CD even more valuable, as most of his releases do feature his better known work.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Lightnin’ Hopkins memorial

 

One thing is for certain, among all the fantastic and wonderful blues players that I have featured over the past 200 reviews, from Robert Johnson through to Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Ledbelly and Son House, to name a few –  Lightnin’ Hopkins stands tall.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1
Mid 1970’s

 

He traversed the rural Country Blues tradition and the electric Blues of the postwar years. He was also an accomplished guitarist whose syncopated, thumping fingerpicking style directly or indirectly influenced many subsequent Blues and Rock players.

To have a blues collection without including Lightnin’ Hopkins is definitely, to have an incomplete collection.

With so many albums to chose from, I can’t in all honesty try and pretend this is the best of his work or is a must.

However The Gold Series Volume 1 is a great album and contains material not found on his most popular releases.

If you are interested in purchasing it it is available on Discogs for as little as $12.00 which doesn’t include postage.

It is also available on eBay from time to time.

cream of the crate: album review # 199 – lightnin’ hopkins: the gold star series vol 1


VIDEOS:

It is wonderful that Lightnin’ continued to play through the 60’s and 70’s because it means we do have some great live performances.

 

Baby Please Don’t Go

 

Lightnin’s Blues

 

Let’s Pull A Party


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:

 

To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings

 

To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –

 

To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –

 

Click to open the following reviews covering #’s 151 onward.

#151.  The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World

#152.  The Animals – The Animals

#153. Omah Khorshid & His Group  – Live In Australia 1981

#154. Alan Parsons Project – Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe

#155. Billy Thorpe – Tangier

#156. Aretha Franklin – The Best Of

#157. Big Bill Broonzy – Big Bill’s Blues

#158. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go 

#159. The Band – Stage Fright

#160. Ray Brown and the Whispers – Hits and More 1965 – 1968

#161. Guitar Junior – The Crawl

#162. Jimi Hendrix – Radio One

#163. Memphis Minnie – Queen of the Blues

#164. Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)

#165. The Loved Ones – Magic Box

#166. Various Artists – On The Road Again [ An Anthology of Chicago Blues 1947 – 1954]

#167. Janis Joplin – Greatest Hits 

#168. David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust [The Motion Picture]

#169. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication

#170.  Chain – Two Of A Kind

#171. Bob Marley – Legend

#172. Koko Taylor – What It Takes

#173. Stevie Wonder – Original Musiquarium

#174. Various Artists – The Unissued 1963 Blues Festival

#175. Noeleen Batley – Little Treasure

#176. B.B. King – The Best Of

#177. Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac

#178 – Memphis Slim – I Feel So Good

#179. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Live at Budapest

#180. Flowers – Icehouse

#181. Joe Tex – The Best Of

#182. Chicago [Transit Authority] – Chicago Transit Authority

#183. Deep Purple – The Deep Purple Singles

#184. The Doobie Brothers – Best Of The Doobies

#185. Dig Richards – Jive After Five

#186. The Stereo MC’s – Connected

#187. Ricky Nelson – All My Best

#188. Frank Frost – Jelly Roll King

#189. Lonnie Mack – Memphis Wham

#190. Madder Lake – Stillpoint

#191. Carol Kaye and the Hitmen – Guitars 1965

#192. Dion and the Belmonts – Everything You Always Wanted To Hear

#193. The Beatles – Rubber Soul

#194. Sleep John Estes – Jailhouse Blues

#195. Rob E. G. – All His Hits [ The Festival File Vol. 3]

#196. Ma Rainey – Ma Rainey

#197. Sam and Dave – The Best Of

#198. John Lennon – The Plastic Ono Band

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