Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lightnin' Up

Sorta got on a Lightnin' Hopkins kick here recently. It's Alan Govenar's fault for writing such a great biography of one of the greatest bluesmen to ever bend a string or turn a phrase--and no one could do either like Sam Hopkins could. Well, it's not really Govenar's fault, because the Texas bluesman has been one of my favorites for, oh, about thirty years. It's just that bios of musicians send me scurrying to my music library to kind of relive or revive the reason I bought a certain selection and also to compare my aural assessment with the author's.

Somewhere on the blog here I'm pretty sure that I mentioned that Lightnin' Hopkins was the first 'live' blues musician that I'd ever seen. Back in the Summer of '71, a good friend of mine told me that Liberty Hall in Houston had booked Lightnin' Hopkins. I'd been away a college and hadn't heard of Liberty Hall. We used to travel  up to Houston to Love Street and the Cellar and catch Billy Gibbons with the Moving Sidewalks (pre-ZZTop), the Thirteen Floor Elevators and other such up and comers. My friend's older brother had crossed over to the darkside (of the blues) a few years before we did and he kept us apprised of such worthy events.

If you've heard the story, skip to the next paragraph. So, we ventured up to Houston from our small coastal berg and parked ourselves inside of Liberty Hall, which was a great venue for the show. Bruce Springsteen played his first Texas gig there. Lightnin' was booked for two shows that night and we attended the early show. After the house lights dimmed, the skinny frame of the immaculately dressed bluesman ambled onto stage and sat down in a metal folding chair and place a brown sacked bottle next to it. After the applause died down, an assistant brought out a Stratocaster and strapped it around his shoulders and Lightnin' grew ten feet tall in my eyes once he ripped into those first licks. Thirty years later, I certainly can't recall just what he played, but I can recall just how powerful he played it. I've seen lots of blues musicians since then (I'll use Buddy Guy as a point of reference), and no one has ever impressed me with a more dynamic performance that that solitary, scarecrow of a figure laying down stone cold blues that night and singing in a voice that tingled my backbone. He spun tales, stomp his foot like Hooker and boogied down the set. As we walked to the door after the performance, my friend required a detour to the men's room and I followed. Once we stepped inside, he said, "Let's hang out here until the next show starts." Whaat? Well, we hid out in the men's room until the hall cleared and we heard people being let in for the late show, then we took a couple of seats in back of the hall. No one bothered us and we got to see Lightnin' light up Liberty Hall for a second time. It was pretty much the same show, with the same tales, which was quite alright by us.

I had one LP by Lightnin' at that time. It was the Sam Charters' Folkways album from '59, which was supposedly his 'discovery' album for the white folk crowd. Basically, that's what I found lacking about it. The Lightnin' acoustic guitar on this album just didn't slap me around like that electrified performance at Liberty Hall. Sam Charter's tells the story in his liner notes, and Govenar expands the story in the bio, about trying to find Lightnin' at his house, on the streets of the Third Ward and at the juke joints of the Houston neighborhood. He claims that it was Lightnin' that found him, by pulling his car up along side his at a stop light and asking, "Hey, you lookin' for me?" Story continues with Charters saying that Lightnin' had pawned his guitars, so he took him to the pawn shop and agreed to pay off one of them. Lightnin' wanted his electric and Charters demanded the acoustic. Lightnin' should have demanded his electric. Then again, Charters wanted to introduce him to the folkies with the field recordings that he made of Lightnin' at home. He didn't want that nasty, good ol' distorted amped up sound that Lightnin' whomped out on the Herald sessions. The type of whomping blues he played in juke joints, like the Sputnik, up and down Dowling Street. The type of stuff I heard blasting off the stage of Liberty Hall. Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz's recordings followed suit and they mostly amplified Lightnin's acoustic with a pickup.

I'd acquired some of the Herald recordings, but they were mixed in with a compilation of material from other various and sundry labels. The discography that Governar's book tabulates is totally mind boggling, and I can't think of any bluesman, other than maybe John Lee Hooker, that comes anywhere close to the number of labels for which Lightnin' recorded. According to the bio, he played for pay--up front, didn't want no stinkin' royalties and the hell with honoring any sort of contract. I didn't really realize that it was the Herald sessions that turned my ear, until I read the biography. Back when I was digging a lot of Lightnin', there were few places to obtain his stuff and fewer places to research such stuff--pre-Al Gore's internet invention. Plus, I'd kind of fallen deep into the Mississippi mud and it's Chicago offspring. Muddy, Elmore, the Walters and the Wolf had a strong gravitation pull.

So, one of the first things that the biography enticed me into doing--and by golly, it's a must read--was to try and get my hands on the Herald recordings, which was as simple as one clicking Amazon for Lightnin' and the Blues: The Herald Sessions Original Masters recorded in 1954. This, my blues friends, smokes, cooks with gas and oozes blues from the deep end of the red clay and piney woods of East Texas by way of the Third Ward. Lightnin' did the same thing that his contemporaries did when they left the delta and hit the city--they plugged in and let 'er rip. This is Pat Hare playing with Muddy Waters and is flat out as good as anything that came out of Chicago in the mid-'50s (which is saying a lot, because that is the era as far as I'm concerned). All it took for me was the opening riffs of Nothin' But The Blues and that marvelous Texas drawl of Sam Hopkins to convince me that this was IT.

Don't get me wrong, I love lots of recording in my collection that Lighnin' holds court over, but when he cranks up his guitar and gets that amp distorting as if the speaker cones are tearing apart, then that is where the soul of Sam Hopkins lies. Most of the recordings of Hopkins that I don't care about are those on which he's been saddled with a combo of drummer and bass player who are clueless as to how to follow his timing. Most of the time, the train is veering from the track heading for a wreck. As the bio points out, those that played with Lightnin' Hopkins found that following his lead to be treacherous territory. On some recordings, his support clicks marvelously with him and gold is struck. That is the scenario with the Herald stuff. Donald Cook's upright bass playing and Ben Turner's drumming lock in on Lightnin' and fit him like a glove. Best Hopkin's ensemble ever. According to the bio, most of the Gold Star and Aladdin sessions were played electric, but the amplification just wasn't there. Some of the Arhoolie recordings from Chris Strachwitz were electric, but tamely so compared to what came before. As a matter of fact (from the bio), it seems that both Charters and Strachwitz assumed that the Aladdin/Gold Star recordings were acoustic--another reason Charters bailed the acoustic out of hock.

Chris Strachwitz, by the way, has been the subject of featured stories in the major blues publications and blogs recently, coinciding with the release of Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads, and Beyond and the companion book, Down Home Music, A Journey Through The Heartland 1963. Govenar features him prominently in his book because of the relationship he had with Hopkins', going back to the fifties. Strachwitz recorded numerous sides of Hopkins and was his promoter for many concert appearances, especially on the West Coast. Even Strachwitz admits that his favorite recordings of Lightnin' were the Herald recordings and that those were the ones he heard first that convinced him to travel to Houston in order to seek out Hopkins. I do need to mention, since I blogged about tracking down Jeff Carp, that Strachwitz captured a great version of  Rock Me Baby with Carp blowing some kind of fat backed Chi-town type blues harp. Sorta proves that Lightnin' could have given those cats up there a run for there money at their own game. Speaking of a run for their money, the bio points out that Lightnin' Hopkins pretty much out sold Muddy Waters in the early fifties and they more or less swapped that lead back and forth throughout the decade. Lightnin' certainly traveled a great deal more than I realized. Seems that California and New York City were second homes for him whenever he decided to leave Texas. Even though he hated flying, it seems that he was still touring Europe and places like Japan just a few years before he passed away in 1982.

I'd read accounts of Strachwitz's adventures into the Third Ward prior to Govenar's book because I've read liner notes and blues magazine interviews for decades now. Same thing with Charters and Mack McCormick. Govenar calls up a lot of what I've read, but the value is in the reams of additional information that he has sussed out from these guys and others who knew Po' Lightnin' intimately, like Texas Johnny Brown or Ed and Bernie Pearl who operated the Ash Grove folk music club in Los Angeles and booked Lightnin' throughout the '60s. I especially enjoyed the tales of J.J. Phillips, who made a pilgrimage from California to meet her hero. The light skinned African American teenager, who could pass as white, found her target in the Third Ward and after several trips, eventually established an intimate relationship with the blues bard. She documented the experience and fictionalized it in the novel, Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale. Her recollections of hangin' with Lightnin' are priceless, so are Govenar's documentation of the musician's life. Put down Lightnin' Hopkins His Life and Blues by Alan Govenar on the "gotta it read" list.

P.S.--Speaking of books, don't forget to keep River Bottom Blues on your radar. It won't be out until the Fall of 2011, so I'll throw a little reminder out every once and awhile. Who could pass up a crime novel featuring blues harp players?

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