Fan hits right note for Houston blues legend

Fan hits right note for Houston blues legend
November 9, 2010

Eric Davis was unpacking a large state historical marker when he noticed the misspelled name scrawled on the packaging: "Sam (Lighting) Hopkins."
Cast aluminum doesn't lend itself to corrections. Davis anxiously removed the rest of the packing material from the sign, which was delivered to his home pre-mounted on a 10-foot pole. He was relieved to find the blues legend's nickname correctly imprinted into the metal.
After a year of petitioning, writing, editing, rewriting, fundraising and one brief typographical scare, the marker honoring Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins will go up at property owned by Project Row Houses at the corner of Dowling and Francis on Saturday, publicly codifying the relationship between an iconoclastic artist and the city he called home for decades.
The event will feature speeches and proclamations — Saturday is Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins Day — and other typical dedication trimmings. There also will be live music, including a performance by Hopkins' cousin, Milton Hopkins.
Davis knew he wanted to keep it in the Third Ward neighborhood where Hopkins lived rather than host a big event at a new venue. Beyond that, he isn't sure what to expect.
"I really got in over my head on this," he says. "What if 10 people show up? What if 1,000 show up?"
His is a humble grave
Davis' involvement came about through a hunt for Hopkins' grave.
Last year, Davis, 51, took his daughter to Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery. It's a large piece of land, and the staff sent them in the wrong direction. After a lengthy hunt, they found Hopkins' modest stone, its edges hidden by overgrown grass.
"Even my daughter, who didn't want to go, asked me, 'Is this all there is?' " he says.
Hopkins was born in Centerville in 1912, but he is inextricably linked to Houston. It took two tries for him to stick in the city, but on the second he became a fixture, an essential part of the city's blues scene.
Hopkins' recorded output is estimable: He made dozens of albums in his lifetime - a quantity of which remains in existence and is easily obtainable. He influenced numerous musicians famous and obscure, blues and rock performers alike. And his reach crossed generations.
Hopkins was a major influence on the playing of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who in turn inspired players such as Steve Earle, who regularly included a Hopkins song in his live sets for years. Hopkins' guitar playing can be heard in the music of Earle's gifted young son, Justin Townes Earle.
"He had the spookiest guitar tone," the younger Earle says. "Lightnin' sounded dangerous. And he was."
Music had long reach
Hopkins was a Third Ward fixture whose reach extended well beyond his adopted neighborhood, especially after the 1960s folk music drew interest from white listeners in older blues legends. ZZ Top's rhythm section of bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard backed him at one point. Rex "Wrecks" Bell, owner of the Old Quarter venue now located in Galveston, played bass with him.
ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons says the band frequented Lightnin's home regularly throughout the '70s, picking up blues phrasing skills and turnaround licks from the master troubadour himself.
"It's also been noted," he says, "that the band continues their semi-secret inside tradition, learned from Lightnin', of talking back to a television to 'advise' the actors with the action."
Lack of respect?
Hopkins died in 1982 at age 69. His performances had been in decline, but the body of work and the iconic visage (the hat, the shades, the dangling cigarette) secured his legend. He inspired a song by the rock band R.E.M. and made Rolling Stone's list of the 100 most important guitarists of all time. He's an embarrassing omission from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though the Hall does have a guitar of his in its exhibit.
Lacking a proper music museum , Houston really doesn't have much to offer guests looking for evidence of its rich history as the epicenter for Texas music. A tear-down-and-rebuild city, its legacy as a music town has largely been co-opted by Austin.
And blues, in particular, is a type of music that doesn't lend itself to museum-ready ephemera. R&B and hip-hop for decades have been the prevalent forms of musical expression coming from the African-American experience. And finances rarely worked in favor of older blues players.
Hopkins demanded his money up front. It seemed a logical defense mechanism to ensure payment. But it meant he rarely received money on the back end for his recordings. Too many blues practitioners were fleeced by record labels. Segregated clubs limited the number of places they could play.
The cliché of the traveling musician springs from some sort of truth; some simply didn't nurture the familial connections to ensure someone would look after a legacy or tend to a grave.
Davis is originally from Decatur, Ill. — he moved here in 1993 — and felt driven to protect a bit of cultural heritage.
"These musicians contributed so much, certainly to me," he says. "But also to the cultural fabric or whatever you want to call it. This is purely American music."
"These musicians contributed so much, certainly to me," he says. "But also to the cultural fabric or whatever you want to call it. This is purely American music."
Back to his roots
When talking about the blues legends, he never refers to them by first names or nicknames; for him it's "Mr. Hopkins." After leaving the cemetery he began raising money, getting much assistance along the way from the Houston Blues Society, House of Blues and Project Row Houses, among others.
Having secured some recognition for Hopkins, Davis spends much time thinking about where the marker should go — near the cemetery or Hopkins' old apartment or near a club he used to play.
He settled on a stop where Hopkins would often catch the bus, sometimes playing as it moved along Dowling Street.
A livelier location than a cemetery, no doubt.
"I needed to keep it where he came from," he says. "This area, this community."
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