Let There Be Lightnin’

How Sam Hopkins killed the blues.

IT’S ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREAT Lightnin’ moments: Austin City Limits, 1979, less than three years before he died. He was 67 and wearing a bright-blue leisure suit with rhinestones that sparkled in the TV lights and a beige fedora cocked at a 45-degree angle on the side of his head. He looked like a fabulous old pimp. He played a Fender Stratocaster in front of a rhythm section that included bass player Ron Wilson, a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Lightnin’ had been playing live music for almost sixty years, though his performances the previous decade had been rather unpredictable—flashes of brilliance competing with the age-related tendency toward sloth and crankiness. This show was no different: great riffing, uninspired noodling, blues clichés, bizarre stage patter, and angry glares at the bass player, who gamely tried to keep up with the impulsive chord changes.

The moment came halfway through “Ain’t No Cadillac,” when, after doing some soloing, Lightnin’ decided to do some more. For some reason he had a wah-wah pedal, and he either stomped it too hard or it had been turned up way too high, because his amplifier let out a high-pitched squeal—a loud, intense, and not unpleasant sound that lasted about three seconds. At first he appeared

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