The late Lightnin’ Hopkins might be a name you recognise but perhaps not aware of his incredible full story. Hopkins is undoubtedly one of the most influential guitarists of all time, and Jimi Hendrix, an artist revered as the greatest to ever hold the instrument, is one of the many who sought inspiration from him.
Sam John Hopkins was born in Texas back in 1912, and his local area helped define his sound. Like many from a blues background, his first introduction to music came from the church, and remarkably, Blind Lemon Jefferson was part of the same congregation that gave Hopkins his first break.
Jefferson allowed Hopkins to start performing with him at local gatherings, and this was an honour for the young prodigal talent, who was the only person he’d allowed to share the stage alongside him. However, being a Black man in 1930s America meant that the odds were stacked against the guitarist. Unfortunately, his talent was unrecognised for too long due to this factor alone.
During the ’30s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm, and it remains unknown precisely why he was imprisoned. After his release, Hopkins attempted to make a life for himself as a musician in Houston. Yet this was to no avail, and he returned to his hometown with his tail between his legs.
Fast forward to 1946 and Hopkins gave Houston one last shot, and here the guitarist was discovered by Aladdin Records’ Lola Anne Cullum, who managed to convince him to move to Los Angeles. He only stayed there fleetingly before returning to Houston, and from that point, Hopkins rarely played outside of the city’s walls which made him become a local hero.
Later, as a young Jimi Hendrix was growing up in Seattle, Hopkins’ records were a staple in his household thanks to his father’s musical taste, and he was one of the most influential figures in shaping his career.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie, went as far as saying without Lightnin’ Hopkins, then there’d be no Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile, B.B. King once said: “Lightnin’ Hopkins may not have known many notes, but he knew the right ones, and he knew where to put them. Some genius with four doctorates in music theory won’t be able to do in a lifetime what Lightnin’ did in a minute, to tell you the truth”.
Allegedly, when Hendrix said his famous quote, “The blues is easy to play, but hard to feel,” he was reportedly discussing Hopkins’ track ‘Woke Up This Morning’, which he believed was a perfect example of everything the blues should strive to achieve.
Furthermore, in 2018, Hendrix’s record collection – which he left behind in his Mayfair apartment – surfaced in a gallery and showed just how highly he rated Hopkins. In fact, the only person who he owned more copies of than the late Texan was Bob Dylan with Jimi storing Earth Blues, The Roots Of, Soul Blues, Something Blue, and Lightnin’ Strikes by Hopkins.
While Lightnin’ Hopkins didn’t become a household name, there’s no doubt that he helped make it possible for artists like Jimi Hendrix to come along and conquer. Unfortunately, timing served as an obstacle for him, and if he had his shot in another era, perhaps, he’d receive the flowers he deserved.