March 28, 2002, 7:27PM
Town memorializes bluesman with new statue
By MARTY RACINE
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
On a slate-gray January morning the highway through deep East Texas snakes past Preacher’s Palace Barbecue, past “Live Worms,” “Bulls for Sale,” flea markets and wild pigs cavorting in fields.
“Oh, yeah, they tear this part of the country up, man,” a fellow at the gas station says about the pork chops. “And if you find one on somebody’s property, I’m sure if you knocked on their door and said, `Hey, you got hogs out there,’ they’ll say, `Go kill ’em for me.’ In this country you doin’ them a favor.”
Welcome to Crockett — “Paradise in the Pines.” Down from Courthouse Square, intersecting a block of slumbering brick buildings, is Camp Street, where wagon trains once gathered, where today a legend is being honored.
Sam (Lightnin’) Hopkins.
Long after his passing, the celebrated, irascible Texas bluesman is going legit. A statue commissioned by the Crockett Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Beautification Committee and the Piney Woods Fine Arts Association is being unveiled 20 years to the day after his death, attracting family, friends and dignitaries — the mayor, council members, a judge and the executive director of the Texas Commission on the Arts.
Officials envision the statue as the cornerstone of a Texas Blues Trail. Before the blues hit the big city, East Texas hamlets rocked with itinerant string-benders like Hopkins, Frankie Lee Sims, Smokey Hogg, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mance Lipscomb and Frank Robinson.
And Crockett, not Houston, which the world associates with Hopkins, is seizing its historical mandate. “People say, `What can we do about tourism?’ It’s staring you in the face,” says Pip Gillette, who with his brother Guy initiated the statue drive. They own the Camp Street Cafe, an acoustic-music venue renovated from an old blues joint. During the tear-down, they discovered knives, razors, patent-medicine bottles and dice — yellowed, chipped and small as peas.
The unveiling presents musical tributes by Crockett bluesman Robinson (singing Hopkins’ Katie Mae), Mineola songstress Ruthie Foster, Hopkins’ former bassist Wrecks Bell and Austin slide guitarist Steve James — after which Hopkins’ 54-year-old granddaughter Bertha Kelly gets up to say a few words.
“If Lightnin’ were alive, I don’t know if he would even attend,” she tells the assembled. “He was not one that liked publicity. I remember talking to him one time at a blues singer’s funeral. They were taking pictures, and newspapers were around, he’d say, `Ah don’ wan’ none o’ that at my funeral.’ ”
A freight train rumbles through town wailing like a harmonica. A gust of wind topples the pretty flower arrangements. Somebody somewhere is restless.
Lightnin’ Hopkins played down-home gutbucket country blues. Whereas the Texas blues lineage inherited elements of country and Western, Cajun, Creole, zydeco, waltz and polka, Hopkins’ music was bluer than blue.
Unschooled in the precise and complex harmonic structures of rhythm and blues, he relied on a basic three-chord pattern that he extended beyond form through use of a talking blues style.
“What distinguished Hopkins as a blues artist was the spontaneity of his performance and the unabashed power of his personality,” says biographer Alan Govenar. “He rarely sang a song the same way twice. He improvised songs and engaged his audience on the problems and joys of everyday life, telling stories about whatever came into his mind.”
Sam Hopkins was born in 1912 to a sharecropping family in Centerville, a few farms west of Crockett. His grandfather was a slave who hanged himself. His father, Abe, was a ruffian murdered after an argument over a card game.
His mother, Frances, encouraged him to play organ at her home church services, but he was drawn to the hard stuff plucked by older brothers Joel and John Henry.
At age 8 Sam built a guitar by cutting a hole in a cigar box, nailing on a plank and stringing it with wire. After hearing Blind Lemon Jefferson enthrall a picnic in Buffalo, he knew that music would save him from the cotton patch.
Soon he was entertaining around the area. His nephew, Houston guitarist Milton Hopkins, conjures a typical farm scene: “They’d be out pickin’ cotton, working like hell, and Lightnin’d be laying under a tree with a guitar. He knew what he was doing. He had his thing already cut out.” Hopkins would later rail against demeaning fieldwork in Tom Moore’s Blues, about a cruel Grimes County landowner.
In the 1930s Hopkins crisscrossed East Texas with singer Texas Alexander, playing for hat money in Buffalo, Brenham, Palestine, Leona and Crockett. On Camp Street, Crockett’s hot entertainment district that somehow circumvented the county’s prohibition on liquor, Hopkins found opportunity in music — and other pursuits, Robinson says.
“He loved to drink and play dominoes and shoot dice. Oh, that was his game.”
Hopkins served on a road gang for gambling and wrote up the experience in Penitentiary Blues. It was a song sung by many on Camp Street, where vice raids were commonplace, Robinson says. “When the police went in the front door, the gamblers were jumpin’ all out the windows.”
Conveniently, the jailhouse was down the street.
By the late 1930s Hopkins was drawn to Houston, where he would meet Antoinette Charles, his lifelong companion.
The city was poor soil for country blues, but it did reward a working man, and by the middle ’40s Hopkins was a fixture in the Third Ward. He didn’t play the top nightclubs of Dowling Street, which booked dance bands and drew more of a high-life crowd; he performed in gin joints, on the sidewalk around McGowen and Gray streets, even on city buses. Sometimes a bus driver, against regulations, let Hopkins duck into the liquor store for a quick pint.
Musically, Hopkins was unique about town, Houston guitarist Texas Johnny Brown says. “You had more piano players in Houston than you had guitar players — Big Walter, Amos Milburn, Elmo Nixon, Sweets Holloman, Carl Campbell. Lightnin’ was his own thing, and he was the boss of it.”
Brown, who at 66 still plays and records, knew Hopkins informally. “He was a country gentleman. He had his real natural ways. We’d swap a few bottles of gin. He really loved that gin. And I was too well-raised to refuse.”
In 1946 Hopkins was discovered in Houston when a talent scout for Los Angeles’ Aladdin Records found him hanging out in the ‘hood. In L.A. he cut his first sides, including the signature Katie Mae, with barrelhouse pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith. Aladdin tagged them Thunder & Lightnin’, and a legend was born.
A year later Short Haired Woman sold an impressive 40,000 copies on Houston’s Gold Star label. Baby Please Don’t Go doubled that.
Hopkins became a prolific recording artist. He did get burned — labels would pay him for a particular song, then market different takes under various titles without additional compensation — but he was shrewd to demand payment before entering the studio, and he felt no loyalty to record companies, and he recorded “race records” for various labels throughout the 1950s.
Race artists often capitalized on the chitlin’ circuit, but Hopkins would simply retreat to Texas, and by decade’s end America’s migration to the cities and the ascendancy of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll had rendered his earthy tones quaint and obscure.
Then, musicologists Chris Strachwitz and Samuel Charters built the Lightnin’ mystique on Arhoolie and Folkways, respectively, cultivating him as a folk hero before a generation of whites seeking the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. Like other bluesmen — Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters — Hopkins became a national treasure. Though he hated flying, he toured Europe, where the blues were revered, and in the United States he made the rounds of festivals and colleges. In 1960 he played Carnegie Hall with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
Riding along was Antoinette Charles. “She was like his roadie,” Milton Hopkins says. “She’d be the one with the extra bottle to tide him through the night. She would remind him of the words to some of the songs.”
Through the musicians union, Milton got a job backing his uncle on rhythm guitar for a two-week engagement in San Francisco. It was not an easy gig.
“Lightnin’s timing was erratic, and he didn’t adhere to form. Wherever his heart told him to go, that’s where he would go. You had to be really attentive or you’d get in trouble.”
As such, Lightnin’s muse passed understanding, Milton says.
“It came from the good Lord. Yes, sir, it was a gift from God.”
In the 1960s Hopkins turned to electric guitar and employed bass and drums. Some say he did so reluctantly. Others claim he enjoyed exploring this extra dimension.
“I think it gave him room to relax,” says Bell, 57, Hopkins’ semi-regular bassist from 1966 to ’79. “He played in E, which gives you three open strings, and once he realized that with a bass player and a drummer he could give it (more) sustain, he could really wail.”
Bell, who runs the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in Galveston, replaced Rocky Hill in Hopkins’ outfit about the time Hill’s brother Dusty was forming ZZ Top. At first Bell made $20 a night playing in Houston bars that whites did not venture into.
“But the minute they saw I was with Lightnin’ everybody would buy me beers, hamburgers. I made a lot of friends that way.”
When he owned the Old Quarter in downtown Houston from 1967 to ’76, Bell paid Hopkins $100 a night, hired a bartender and sat in on bass. As the gigs piled up elsewhere, including such rock showcases as Houston’s Liberty Hall and Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters, Bell began earning $100, too. Hopkins sometimes paid him with a wad of $1 bills.
Bell didn’t consider himself a top player. “I was real simple, which he liked. He wanted 12-bar blues bass. Lightnin’ was his own show. He talked a lot, and people didn’t know when his talking stopped and the song began, and that’s what I knew. I’d hit that A, and he’d look over at me with those sunshades and grin. If I tried to hit a fancy note, he’d glare at me under those shades.”
Hopkins always brought a pint to work. Sometimes the contents were brownish, sometimes clear. Who knows? “He used to nip it straight. I knew when he was finished because he’d get drunk and start playing slide with his bottle.”
At such times, when the night grew blurry, Bell knew what to expect. Lightnin’ would call for a bass solo, invariably confusing Wrecks’ name with that of their equipment guy, Rick.
“The three words I dreaded in all my life,” Bell says, “were, `Take it, Rick!’ Before the show I’d say, `Lightnin’, please don’t give me a lead break.’ He’d say all right, all right. Then later on it’s, `Take it, Rick.’ ”
Bell was with Hopkins at Carnegie Hall in 1979 on a bill featuring Clifton Chenier, John Lee Hooker and Honeyboy Edwards. Hopkins was the epitome of cool on that trip, downing Pearl beer during interviews with the stuffy East Coast press. “He’d sit there with his Pearl and go, `Y’all don’t have good beer up here in New York. I had to bring my own from Texas.’ ”
Even for such an occasion, Bell says, Hopkins didn’t rehearse or even limber up beforehand. “He never did pick up a guitar until it was time to walk out onstage. You never did know it. He never flubbed a lick. He was so smooth.”
He was 5 when her parents split up, but Annie Mae Box, born in Centerville in 1929, does remember her daddy, Sam Hopkins. Daddy, with whom she shares a lean frame, dark complexion and high forehead, sat around and played guitar — when he was home.
“Daddy didn’t believe in goin’ to no work in the fields like they had then. So he would go and play his guitar in these little ol’ towns where they’re throwin’ the nickels and the quarters and the pennies and things, and he’d stay gone sometimes for two or three days. And my mother just got tired of it.”
Raised on the Murray farm near Madisonville by her mother, Elamer Lacey, and her stepfather, Joseph Wheeler, Annie Mae didn’t see Daddy again for 33 years. In 1967 her daughter Bertha reached Hopkins by phone during intermission at a Jewish Community Center show in Houston. He was delighted to hear from his long-lost granddaughter.
During Lightnin’s remaining years Annie Mae, Bertha and her children visited his Houston apartment frequently, reuniting the family.
“Oh, Lord, we just had the best time,” Annie Mae says. “He just enjoyed them (great-) grandchildren.”
One day Lightnin’ showed Bertha’s son Andre, then 5, a few notes on guitar. Andre played them back. “Granddaddy said, `That boy got it in him. You need to get some instruments in your house,’ ” Bertha recalls. “So I got a piano, and he just went from there.”
Andre majored in music at Prairie View A&M.
When Granddaddy wasn’t home, Bertha knew to head to the liquor store on Dowling. “He’d have his big Cadillac with the door open, people passing by and stopping, and he’d have his bottle down there between his legs.”
Hopkins lived alone, but Antoinette Charles cared for him until his death from esophageal cancer and pneumonia Jan. 30, 1982. He was buried at Houston’s Forest Park Cemetery, in a grave marked by a flat headstone “so the tractor can go over it,” Annie Mae says.
Annie Mae isn’t completely happy with her father’s will but proclaims to love Charles, the will’s principal beneficiary, who’s in her 80s and in poor health. “She was good to my daddy, takin’ care of him, seein’ that his clothes was clean, food was always cooked for him. He had some ugly habits, and she was tryin’ to do the best she could to make him stay straight for his gigs and things. So I give her credit.”
All Annie Mae really wanted, she says, was her father’s love. “And I got that. I spent good times with him his last years. You know, there’s a lot of children don’t even know who their daddy is, so I’m just grateful. Daddy loved his children, yes, he did.
“He was a good man, and I’m so proud of those (Gillette) brothers and the sculptor. They would never know from my heart, because when I wanted to see Daddy, sometimes I couldn’t. But there’s nothing to keep me from going there and seeing him now.”
Texas Johnny Brown drives past the bulldozed memories on Houston’s Dowling Street. Beneath the decay, he pictures the bluesman he used to know sitting on a stool in the corner of some dive, drawling in his verses and chatting up the customers, playing whenever he felt like it.
Hopkins lived in a nearby row house, long gone, like the rest of Houston’s blues landmarks. Club Ebony, Shady’s Playhouse, the El Dorado Ballroom — all the joints that ever paid a musician’s way and released men and women from their cares are but slabs or weedy lots or skeleton walls on the bleak tapestry of a forsaken neighborhood.
You’ll find no memorial here, no shrines honoring homegrown blues artists. That’s not within the government’s purview in Houston, and the private sector has yet to take the initiative the way the Gillette brothers did in Crockett.
“The city doesn’t purchase art; most of our statues are donated,” says Pam Ingersoll, coordinator of the Municipal Art Office and director of the city’s art conservation program.
Texas Johnny recalls a time when the city, like Chicago or Memphis or Detroit, commanded respect along the circuit. “I’d be on the road in New York, and somebody’d ask, `Man, you from Houston? Hey, you ever been in the El Dorado?’ ”
Today the famous ballroom at Dowling and Elgin stands quiet above the El Dorado Barber & Beauty Salon — “Specializing in all hair styles.”
Texas Johnny slows down, searching for yesterday. The memories ebb toward the surface. “Right here was an all-night restaurant and club. Can’t think of the name of the place. … Now, here on this corner, on that slab right there, that’s where Lightnin’ played. It was just a little ol’ cafe. I think it was named after the woman that ran it. …
“Now off to the left here, when the Third Ward was really kickin’, there was a place stayed open 24 hours. Any entertainer that was in Houston at night when they got off would wind up right there.”
A year ago sculptor Jim Jeffries, formerly of Houston, began immortalizing Lightnin’ Hopkins in his ranch studio seven miles outside Crockett.
“I always enter these things with a certain sense of humility,” says Jeffries, 67. “I like to be asked, but can I psychologically do this, can I still physically do it?”
He faced another hurdle. Krystyna, his wife of 25 years, had recently died of complications from diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
In grief, Jeffries visited his friend Max Alcina, a Spanish artist who goes by the name Máximo, on the Spanish island of Majorca. “All I did while I was there was laugh. Max does that to me. He’s crazy. I came home and was ready to go to work.”
The work of an artist, he says, is simple: “The artist must look, he must see, he must pay attention to what he sees, and then he needs to tell the truth as he sees it.”
So what is the truth about Lightnin’ Hopkins? “Well, when I started, I didn’t know. I had heard him, not in person but on records. I talked to people that knew him. I was able to spend some time with his daughter. I looked at videos, I read magazines, I looked at pictures, and finally I said, you know, this very, very complex man who was Lightnin’ Hopkins had, down in the core, a very simple message: Here was a man who was set free by his music. He was free to play that music, he was free to tell that story, he was free to go anywhere to do it. I think back at that time freedom for some of our citizens was a lot more rhetoric than it was action.
“There was also a fierce pride in that freedom.
“By the time I got done I knew Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s a different kind of reality from that of a person who can reach out and shake hands or put their arms around him, but it’s still a reality. I didn’t know him like Annie Mae knew him or Bertha Kelly knew him, but I knew the man.”
His piece, depicting Hopkins sitting on a stool with his guitar, wearing a hat and smoking a cigar, is made of concrete and additives.
“There’s two ways of doing concrete. First way is to make a clay model just as if you were going to make a bronze, and then you can make a mold off of it, and then you can cast the concrete in the mold.
“I did not choose to do that, because that can be breakable. I welded up a steel frame (with) about 130 pounds of rebar and formed the statue just by putting handfuls of concrete on top of the rebar. It’s a lot of physical work, and it’s probably the most exacting of all kinds of sculpting, because once you get that iron welded together you can’t say, `Well, I’d like to move this hand a quarter of an inch.’
“You could run a Mack truck over that statue and break some concrete off, but you could throw that back on in a couple days and put it back together.”
The statue weighs 450 pounds. It took four men to move it onto its pedestal.
The plaque reads: “Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins — March 13, 1912, Centerville, Texas-January 30, 1982, Houston, Texas. Bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins often played on the street and in the establishments along Camp Street when it was the center of the black business district in Houston County circa 1940. He took his music from Camp Street to Carnegie Hall and along the way influenced musicians around the world.”
The throng of about 500 is gone. The dignitaries have returned to Austin or to their offices. The musicians have scattered. Family members have driven home. It’s not as if there’s a tavern in town to continue the celebration. Afternoon shadows creep over Lightnin’ Hopkins Park, where the statue will hold court forever, across from the Camp Street Cafe, down from West Goliad Avenue, lined by those slumbering brick buildings.
Around the corner, Discount Music owner Patrick White, aka Wizz, considers it a good day. He sold out his Lightnin’ Hopkins inventory at the ceremony, just circulating through the crowd. “Yes, sir, sold all 50 (CDs) up there. We have more coming in tomorrow.”
Across the street, Robert Thompson, who with his sister Pearl owns Thompson’s Barbecue, stands sentry on the sidewalk over a black barrel stuffed with brisket and ribs, the pecan-wood smoke rising like a departing soul and fogging over half of Crockett.
“Tell you what, you like ribs?” he says with a conspiratorial smile. “Fall off the bone. Pick ’em up, the meat drops off. A guy come through a couple days ago, he said, `Man, do you boil your meat?’ And that really embarrassed me. Naw, I don’t boil my meat! I got a big ol’ barbecue pit.”
Hours later Lightnin’ the Unveiled is bathed in spotlights, and the Camp Street Cafe is standing-room only for a tribute to the very living Frank Robinson.
Robinson, 71, played old-time cotton-pickin’ blues in East Texas until 1981. “Just wasn’t nothing stirring in Crockett” by then, he says. “All them buildings on Camp Street, they all pushed down.”
So he drove a truck for a living until a brief rediscovery in 1994, thanks to Austin musician Tary Owens. Now he’s coming out of retirement again, if just for a night.
“I played up and down Camp Street ever since I picked up the GIT-tar,” he announces onstage, sitting by himself like every lone bluesman who has gone before. “I feel at home still on Camp Street. I’m gonna begin with one of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ tunes that I knew growin’ up as a kid.”
He plucks on Mean Ol’ Twister, pulling those descending blue notes runs out of the soil to resolve each phrase.
And across the street, where all the pushed-down buildings once stood, a man on a pedestal plays the blues to himself.
Marty Racine is a Chronicle reporter.