Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lightnin' Hopkins Did His Blues His Way

Alan Govenar’s 2010 biography, Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues (Chicago Review Press) detailed the career of one of the true blues legends. Issued in England on Ace Records around the time the biography was published was a double CD release of Hopkins’ recordings, “His Blues” that describes itself as a soundtrack to Govenar’s biography. It contains 44 selections from his earliest session for Aladdin Records with Wilson “Thunder” Smith on piano to 1969 sessions for Vault and Arhoolie.

The first disc covers 26 recordings from 1947-1959 and opens with the highly charged Lightnin’s Boogie, with spirited guitar boogie playing behind his forceful vocal and followed by another guitar boogie Jake Head Boogie, which is a slightly bit more restrained but again exhibits some of his trademark guitar runs he would employ over the next several decades of recordings. Katie Mae Blues is from his initial session with Thunder Smith’s piano joining Hopkins acoustic guitar and dry vocal, while Shotgun Blues, was a prototypical slow blues from Hopkins with his whisky coated vocals matched by his responsive single note guitar runs and echoes of this can be heard on his reworking of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Sugar Mama Blues. Other highlights on this first disc include his reworking of Funny Paper Smith’s Howlin’ Wolf Blues, the lively boogie reworking of Tampa Red’s salacious Play With Your Poodle, with terrific guitar; Zolo Go on which he plays organ to imitate an accordion as he sings about going to a zydeco dance; “Tim Moore’s Farm,” his first recording on the infamous Texas farm owner who mistreated his black workers; Short-Haired Woman a theme he would return to about not wanting any woman whose hair was shorter than his; Give Me Central 209, which was a hit for him; and the wild electric guitar instrumental “Hopkins’ Sky Hop.” The material derives from a variety of labels including Aladdin, Gold Star, RPM, Sittin’ In With, Decca, Herald, TNT and Tradition. “Ain’t No Monkey Man” is a previously unissued Specialty recording by Hopkins. This gives a pretty solid overview of Hopkins’ recordings for the commercial rhythm and blues market.

The second disc covers the period when Hopkins was discovered by the folk and blues revivals. Not that it ignores recordings made for the commercial market (Mojo Hand recorded for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label). The majority of the selections derive from recordings made by Mack McCormick for Prestige Bluesville or Chris Strachwitz for Arhoolie. Many were recorded in Hopkins’ hometown of Houston, while others in New York or California. Hopkins ability to spin a topical blues is illustrated by Happy Blues For John Glenn, with pianist Buster Pickens and bass and drums while for Arhoolie he recorded a lively Back at the Chicken Shack, with just drummer Spider Kilpatrick. A trio of topical blues included a new rendition of Tom Moore Blues and Slavery Time, and three live recordings are also heard including a Newport Folk Festival performance of Trouble in Mind. One disappointing aspect of this second disc is that it does not include several songs that would become staples of Hopkins’ performances such as Mr. Charlie, with his lengthy spoken introduction and stuttering effects in his vocals as well as Back Door Friend, his personalized rendition of a Tony Hollins recording. Given the limitations of two CDs, I might have substituted one or both for some of the Bluesville and Arhoolie recordings. This is not to fault the music, but rather indicate that it does not fully represent Hopkins’ repertoire or recordings.

Sound is generally quite good and full discographical information is provided. Alan Govenar’s liner notes use a timeline derived from his biography in which he discusses Hopkins’ life as well as the included recordings. It is perhaps unfortunate that their were a few significant omissions (at least to these ears) of the more recent recordings, but still this is a real good distillation of some of the best Lightnin’ Hopkins and a worthy soundtrack to the excellent Govenar biography.

This was a purchase. Here is Lightnin' performing Mojo Hand.

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