A visit to Houston for any fan of vintage black American music can’t fail to take in a ride through the city’s Third Ward, the cradle of South Texas blues and the point of origin for just about every strand of music to come out of H-Town since the early 20th century. The look of the place has changed greatly from those days in the 1930s and 40s when it was the epicentre of black music activity in Houston and probably the whole of the American South. It’s still the heartbeat of the city’s black community, but on streets where once great blues singers stood on corners and played for nickels and dimes, a profusion of coffee houses and smart restaurants for vegans and carnivores alike now stand.
A titan of Texas blues such as Sam John “Lightnin’” Hopkins would struggle to recognise Dowling Street as the place where he and his distant cousin Alger “Texas” Alexander plied their musical trade in the hope of making enough money to eat in the late 1930s, or where Lightnin’ was discovered in the mid-40s by Lola Ann Cullum, the well-to-do dentist’s wife with a passion for the blues and good contacts with Los Angeles’ Aladdin Records, his first recording home. But at least Dowling Street hasn’t been bulldozed in the name of gentrification. If you wish to do so, it’s still possible to stand on a corner, close your eyes and imagine what it would have been like to hear Lightnin’ and his peers more than 65 years ago.
When I first started listening to blues records in the mid-60s, I was drawn to Lightnin’s music immediately. I loved his laconic vocal style and the relentless rhythmic thrust of his up-tempo sides. I played his fantastic live recording of ‘Cadillac Blues’ over and over again, trying to decipher what he was saying in its opening rap in his often hard-to-decipher South Texas drawl, all the while waiting for him to drop the killer boogie riffs that come along half way through. Once I discovered his R&B classic ‘Mojo Hand’ on a Sue compilation in 1964, I knew my ears would have a lifelong relationship with the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins. And they have.
Lightnin’ died aged 69 in 1982, leaving behind a remarkable recorded legacy that spanned more than 30 years. During the late 50s and early 60s, he was at his most prolific, recording for anyone who would offer a fee and selling many albums to folk-blues fans. He made many fine albums during these years, some of the best of which have long been available on Ace. His earliest sides for labels such as Aladdin, Gold Star, Sittin’ In With and Modern capture him at his most essential. Ace also have that period of his career covered with “Jake Head Boogie” (a collection of the finest Lightnin’ masters and alternate takes from the Modern Records inventory) and “His Blues”, a 2CD career overview issued in conjunction with Alan Govenar’s definitive Lightnin’ Hopkins biography of the same title.
Unlike many of his Houston contemporaries, Lightnin’ enjoyed worldwide fame and acknowledgement of his contributions toSouth Texasblues while he was still alive. It’s a fitting testament to his talents that he has so many CDs available more than 30 years after his death. To find the man and his music at their very best, you need look no further than Ace.
By Tony Rounce
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