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 taken aback, but he kept playing, and a satisfied smile crossed his face. This late in his career, there were very few surprises. He may not have planned that particular outburst, but like all the other notes he played and noises he plucked, he was proud of it. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he said, and jammed the pedal down again. Then he went on to craft a solo that began quietly and cascaded through a fall of bad notes, bringing the song to an early, crashing end, dragging his rhythm section down with him, as he’d been doing for years.
Lightnin’ Hopkins was ornery, stubborn, flashy, and capable of great inspiration followed by obstinate and calculated destruction. In thirty years of recording, he created a body of work as wide, deep, and maddening as anyone’s in American music history: some five hundred songs, or maybe six hundred, or maybe seven hundred. Nobody knows, because Lightnin’ would record for anyone who waved a $50 bill at him. He might play and sing something fierce and new, but just as likely he’d redo a song he’d done the day before, changing a line or two because he felt like it. Or he’d record a song by one of his peers and call it his own. Ultimately, the words didn’t matter. It was the sound of his voice—a deep drawl that was so lonely and sad it seemed to come from another existence—and his loping, finger-picking guitar style, which sounded like the rolling, rough cotton country between the Brazos and Trinity rivers where he was raised.
By the time he died, in 1982, he had become one of the great bluesmen, up there with Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. But no one knew a whole lot about him, beyond the fact that he was from East Texas, that he spent most of his life living alone in small rooms in dingy apartments in Houston’s Third Ward, that he gambled much of his money away, that he often performed and recorded on borrowed guitars, and that he seemed to have a hard time staying in tune. Part of that was his own doing: Lightnin’ told colorful stories about his past, and as he got older he amplified his Po’ Lightnin’ persona, a guy always mistreated by women and misunderstood and abused by everyone else. Part of it was the mythmaking of fans who saw him as the epitome of the blues: the guy with the shades, gold teeth, unlit cigar, and half-pint of whiskey or gin in his back pocket.
To find the real Lightnin’, you have to first go back and listen to his amazing catalog of songs. You have to find the liner notes from long-out-of-print albums and the interviews he did when he was “discovered” by white people almost fifty years ago. You have to talk to the people who knew him, chauffeured him, produced him, played with him, and tried desperately to keep up with him. The picture they paint isn’t always pretty, but the real blues seldom are.
SAM HOPKINS WAS BORN ON A FARM outside Centerville, in Leon County, on March 15, 1912. He would later say that one of his grandfathers, a slave, had hung himself in his misery and that his father, Abe, a cotton and corn farmer, was killed over a card game when he was three. Sometime in 1915, his mother, Frances, moved him and his four older siblings to nearby Leona. Sam picked cotton in the brutal sun. It was a hard life, made worse by the constant humiliations and intimidations of living under Jim Crow: men being called “boy,” no matter how old they were, and not even being able to buy a Coke in local stores (blacks had to make do with strawberry soda).
He told many stories of how he started playing the guitar; in the best one, he nailed a piece of plank to a cigar box and strung it with some screen wire. One of his brothers, Joel or John Henry, gave him lessons, presumably on a six-string guitar, and Sam also banged on the piano and organ in church. When he was eight, he went to a Baptist picnic in nearby Buffalo, where the famed blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, of nearby Freestone County, was performing on a platform. Jefferson traveled all around Central and East Texas, playing on street corners and at picnics and dances, drawing crowds wherever he went. He was a one-man band, pounding the rhythm on the low strings, the melody on the high ones, singing and answering the words with notes and the notes with words. Standing in the crowd, Sam began playing along with the imposing blind man, who stopped in the middle of a song. But when he heard it was just a boy, he invited him up, and the two played together. Jefferson was famous and made a good living; he didn’t have to work the fields. Sam liked the sound of that.
He quit school and began hitting the road for long stretches, hitching rides and hopping trains all the way to Dallas, where he sometimes hooked up with Jefferson, walking him through the busy streets, holding his guitar, knocking out songs. Sam would return home and then leave again. At some point he started playing with his older cousin Alger “Texas” Alexander, a boisterous street singer who had spent time in prison. Alexander didn’t play an instrument and would freely improvise; Sam did his best to follow along. The duo went up and down Texas Highway 75, stopping in little towns, strolling the streets and performing, making some money and returning home. Sam was learning to sing, shout, entertain.
At eighteen Sam married a woman named Elmer (“Just like a man,” he said in a later interview) and tried to settle down in Leona, picking cotton and corn long enough to remember how hard it was. He and his wife had four children: two boys and two girls. He started playing Friday and Saturday night dances at the cotton farms and plantations. They’d have tap-dancing contests and make their own home brew and moonshine. Sam was making his own music too, taking bits and pieces of songs he knew—work songs he’d sung in the field, songs he had heard in the streets by Jefferson and famed guitarist Lonnie Johnson—and throwing in lines about whatever came into his head. But he had to be careful: Black musicians could get harassed or arrested for singing suggestive lyrics. This happened a few years later to Sam’s cousin Frankie Lee Sims, who was singing on a street corner in Crockett when the sheriff drove up, stopped, and listened. “Back then, if you didn’t have no job, they’d make you go and work,” recalls Crockett blues guitarist Frank Robinson, who witnessed the incident. “Frankie was singing, ‘My baby got a standard carburetor, burning bad gasoline.’ He finished, and the sheriff walked over and said, ‘Come on, you’re gonna see what kind of gas I’m burning.’ They kept him on a pea farm for two weeks.” Indeed, at some point Sam did time on a county road gang, though according to him, it was for cause. (“Had to cut an old boy,” he said in one interview. “I was . . . kinda mean,” he said in another.) The experience gave him even more songs, as well as scars on his ankle from the chains, and stories to tell, including one about how the same judge who put him on the gang let him off after Sam sang him a song (“How bad and how sad to be a fool.”). Eventually he and his wife split up—either she got fed up with his rough and rambling ways or he just took off.
IN 1939 SAM LEFT THE SIMPLE life behind and moved to Houston, settling in at a rooming house in the Third Ward, southeast of downtown. For a while he worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, laying rails and ties. He also made a cotton-picking trip to Arizona with some friends from back home but spent most of his time there gambling, playing guitar, and bootlegging wine to Indians. He returned to Houston and went back to music full-time. He made his living by his wits and his riffs, singing standards like “Trouble in Mind” or Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on street corners on and around bustling Dowling Street. Taking his guitar on a bus that transported blacks to and from jobs in the white neighborhoods, he’d do requests, make up songs, and walk off with enough change to pay for food, whiskey, and maybe some time rolling the dice.
He started performing in little juke joints, playing songs his own way, with his own meter—a standard twelve-bar blues tune might become thirteen or fourteen bars—and his own words, rarely doing a song as he’d done it before. His years of having to grab a crowd’s attention and hold it had given him a knack for drama; he’d clown, banter, dance, finger the guitar while lying on his back. He was like a rapper, using repetition to tell a story and get people to dance. He’d see a pretty girl in a red dress and shout out in his rough voice a line about a pretty girl in a red dress. It would start raining and he would sing about how the rain made him feel. In these urban clubs, as at the association picnics back in the country, Sam played for people who knew what he was talking about, who heard in his words and music their own history, their own blues. He was at his best here, in front of the people in whom he saw himself.
In 1946 a talent scout for Aladdin Records heard Sam play on Dowling Street and invited him to Los Angeles to record. He had been performing in the clubs with a piano player named Wilson “Thunder” Smith, and they took a train west and recorded four songs with a drummer, a gloriously chaotic mix of twining acoustic guitar and tinkling piano. You can hear the basic playing styles Sam had been developing and that he would use his whole life: a fast, rocking shuffle (“Feel So Bad”); a mid-tempo one where he’d alternate a low-string rhythm with higher melody riffs, like Jefferson played (“Katie Mae Blues”); and a slow, shambling, ghostly, finger-picking drone (“Rocky Mountain”). Sometimes Sam is out of tune and often he’s out of time—the band tries its best to follow him as he tumbles through his twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-bar blues, crashing at the end of each song. Before the 78’s came out, someone dubbed the duo Thunder and Lightnin’, so Sam got a nickname.
He returned to Houston and, a year later, with his brother Joel, recorded some sides for a local label called Gold Star, rerecording two songs he had done for Aladdin; “Short-Haired Woman” became a hit, selling 40,000 copies. He would record another three dozen songs for Gold Star over the next three years, and they would also do well; “Baby Please Don’t Go,” for example, sold 80,000. Producers began coming to Houston and recording Lightnin’—paying him per song, as he refused to sign any recording or publishing contracts—and he began recording for other labels. In 1948 he went to New York and recut some of the songs he had done for Gold Star. He went to Chicago and recorded for Mercury. He went back to New York. From 1946 through 1951 he recorded some 150 songs for a dozen labels, some of which would then sell the songs to other labels and not tell, or pay, Lightnin’ (they could do what they wanted, since they owned all the rights to the recordings). His 78’s were sold all over the country, and he became a member of a club of influential postwar blues artists that included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker.
Occasionally a producer, trying to latch on to the R&B trend, would hook Lightnin’ up with bass players and drummers who clearly didn’t know what they were getting into. But the best stuff was Lightnin’ with just his acoustic guitar, rocking like a one-man band, with rapid bursts of notes answering his words. On the slower numbers, his guitar banged like a rope against a desolate flagpole. He could sound impish or isolated; there was a deep loneliness in his voice, something you couldn’t fake, the equivalent of one of seminal folk artist Bill Traylor’s stark drawings. Some of the songs he had sung for years, but he would also sit in the studio and make up new ones about whatever was on his mind. Sometimes these were inspired snapshots of a moment in time; sometimes they were just clichés about the troubles of Po’ Lightnin’. That didn’t matter to him. “Everything I do is good,” he claimed. He never saw himself as a songwriter, at least as that term is used today. Lightnin’ was an entertainer; whatever had happened today was different from what had happened yesterday, so he would play and sing the song differently too. Or he would just steal one outright, like Big Joe Williams’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” or Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (retitled by Lightnin’ as “One Kind of Favor”). He would later claim that he wrote every song he played, and to the extent that he personalized them so much, you could see why he believed it. His audience didn’t care where the songs came from. His words, like Jefferson’s, were theirs too.
He made a lot of money and spent it, gambling (he was a terrible gambler) and drinking (he was a good drinker, buying rounds for his buddies in the Third Ward). He was the king of Dowling Street, and he reveled in his fame. Much to the frustration of his record companies, he hated to fly and didn’t want to go on package tours. He was comfortable at home, living in a rooming house, working juke joints and icehouses, and cavorting with gamblers and hustlers. He would occasionally go back to Leon and Houston counties to perform—he was, like Jefferson, barely known in the white communities but famous in the black ones, such as Crockett’s Camp Street area. “He would just walk and start playing,” remembers Frank Robinson, “and people would block the streets. There would be so many people that the store owners would run him off. He would just move on up the street and do it again.” Out in the rest of America, however, his old-fashioned country blues were fading in popularity. He stopped recording in 1956.
A COUPLE YEARS LATER, folklorist Mack McCormick, who over the previous decade had seen Lightnin’ perform on the streets as well as in the studio, tracked him down in the Third Ward. McCormick told producer Sam Charters about the discovery, and in 1959 Charters put Lightnin’ in a studio with a borrowed acoustic guitar for the Smithsonian Folkways label. McCormick asked Lightnin’ to cut some songs too—also with just an acoustic, as he had first heard him. His 78’s had been made for the black market; these new recordings would be for whites. The folk music boom was on, and the blues revival was just around the corner.
McCormick found it difficult to get Lightnin’ into a studio with a guitar. The bluesman was wary—he had been burned before by record producers. Lightnin’ was also skeptical about McCormick’s idea of booking him in front of white audiences. “He was like a lot of blues singers,” remembers McCormick. “They were concerned about what white people could understand. Blues was their private language. They didn’t think white people were interested in what they had to say.”
They were wrong. In 1959 McCormick, who had become the musician’s publicist and booking agent, put him on the bill of a Houston Folklore and Folk Music Society hootenanny at the Alley Theatre with white folkies singing songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “The Hammer Song.” Lightnin’ was nervous—he’d never done a sit-down concert in front of three hundred people before. But he was the real deal, not an interpreter of the real deal. That night Lightnin’ sang songs about chain gangs, mules, women, and hard traveling, told stories in his gravelly drawl, clowned a little, danced while he sat, and finger-picked effortlessly. The audience loved it. He’d been out of the public eye for only three years, but he was now “rediscovered.” He began making albums—ten over the next four years. Fans like Chris Strachwitz, a German-born, California-raised twentysomething who had been entranced upon hearing Lightnin’ on the radio (“It was his sound that hit you—goddam, it hit you”), brought tape recorders to the Third Ward, hoping to record the legend. Half the thrill was finding Lightnin’. Maybe he was on a cot in his room on Hadley Street, or maybe he was at a certain bar. He didn’t have a phone, so some seekers were told to leave a message at a nearby grocery store. Or to ask people on Dowling Street; his pal Junco Red always knew where he was.
The other half was recording him: negotiating the price per song, paying it (sometimes in advance), and finally experiencing him sitting in a room, drinking whiskey or gin while he spun out songs about prison life, picking cotton, Dowling Street, his arthritis, John Glenn, bunion stew, bootlegging to Indians, what it’s like to watch a one-eyed woman cry (“It’s misery every time she cries/It hurts po’ me”), and the unbearable loneliness of being Lightnin’. Listen to 1961’s “Got Nowhere to Lay My Head”—the starkness of the voice; the high, plaintive one-note solo. It even sounds like Lightnin’ stifles a cry at one point. He was still appropriating songs—“Take Me Back” was Jefferson’s “Beggin’ Back,” “Ain’t It Crazy” was Lightnin’ Slim’s “It’s Mighty Crazy,” and “Mojo Hand” (probably his biggest hit) sounded an awful lot like Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues.” Of course, Waters had lifted it from someone else too. Lightnin’ was doing what everyone else did. He just did it a lot more.
LIGHTNIN’ HATED TO FLY, but John Lomax Jr., the son of the famous folklorist and a sometime agent for Lightnin’ (known as the only white man he ever trusted), persuaded him in 1960 to go to California, where he gigged at the Troubadour, the Ash Grove, and the University of California Free Folk Festival, in Berkeley. He went to New York, where he played the Village Gate and Carnegie Hall on a hootenanny bill with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (he was “the only real folk singer on the program,” wrote critic Nat Hentoff in The Reporter). In 1962 he won Down Beat’s jazz poll for “New Star, Male Singer.” He was fifty.
Lightnin’ was influencing a whole generation of folkies trying to get the country rhythm of his finger-picking. He was also becoming an icon, the image of what a bluesman looked and acted like. In 1964 he was talked into going to England for the American Folk Blues Festival. But he didn’t seem to enjoy himself (in his first song, he sang about flying and how he was terrified about the trip home), not even hanging out backstage with other performers, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
He preferred the Third Ward. “Here I can be broke and hungry and walk out and someone will buy me dinner,” he explained to a writer for the Houston Chronicle. “It ain’t always like that in a strange place where you don’t know no one.” His street corner days were over, and now he could play every night of the week if he wanted to in joints in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth wards, making $35 to $70 from the bar, plus tips. His old Crockett friend Frank Robinson remembers how Lightnin’ wouldn’t play for fun anymore when sitting around with his buddies: “He quit doing that. He’d tell you where he was gonna be and what time.” Sometimes he’d book a gig in advance; other times he would just show up and start singing. Sometimes he’d knock off a song or two about Po’ Lightnin’ and leave; other times he’d go until closing time. He might sit on the stage and stare at the floor, or he might rock the house, hollering at the dancers (who hollered right back), singing to a certain woman, urging the dancers on, playing louder and faster or softer and slower. At the end, he might slip out without saying a word.
He was seeing a woman named Antoinette Charles, who took care of everything for him, from making sure he ate to sobering him up to whispering lyrics to him when the words wouldn’t come. By all accounts, Lightnin’ was equally devoted to her. He was never known as a womanizer; his songs don’t have the kind of macho salaciousness you find in those of a lot of blues singers. He was kind of old-fashioned that way.
But if he was sweet to Charles, he was hell on his kin. He never tried to contact the children he’d left behind in East Texas, and he did little to help his indigent mother or siblings. After his sister, Alice, died, in 1963 (Lightnin’ didn’t attend the funeral), McCormick wrote that the singer’s 88-year-old mother said, “I had five children . . . but the baby . . . has been no help to nobody except when you wanted to hear music.”
IN 1967 FILMMAKER LES BLANK came to Texas and persuaded Lightnin’ to let members of a documentary crew film him in Centerville and Houston—but only after he had suckered them into gambling away a large sum of money. The resulting film, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, is a gorgeous 31-minute poem of a movie, a series of snapshots from his life as well as a look at an era fast disappearing. The camera follows Lightnin’—cowboy hat, shades, hair slicked back, four front teeth capped in gold, brown half-pint bottle—as he sits on a couch with a woman and drunkenly sings a duet, returns to Centerville and lovingly greets long-lost relatives, and throws rocks at a snake along the railroad tracks with a friend. He fishes and goes to a black rodeo. He tells a story about driving into a ditch to avoid hitting a pig and getting arrested for being parked on the wrong side of the road (the judge told him, “Well, boy, you know better than that,” and fined him $500). Lightnin’ and a washboard player perform at a daytime country picnic where young people dance and an elderly woman shakes her head in wonder. He blasts a solo and people whoop and shout. Watching the film is something of a revelation, at least if you ever had a doubt where the blues came from. The blues came from the soil of East Texas and the people who lived there, who danced and whooped to a drunken guitar player, who knew the physical pain from picking cotton and the small, daily degradations of being second-class citizens, who knew the words to “Trouble in Mind” and “CC Rider” but didn’t really care if the singer put in some of his own. Blues isn’t about the song—it’s about the singer, how he makes you feel. And Lightnin’ made people feel good.
As the sixties wound down, Lightnin’ would hang out around Dowling Street, lie on his cot and watch baseball on TV (he loved the Houston Astros), and hold court in front of fans like Townes Van Zandt, who was obsessed with his hero’s finger-picking style as well as his lifestyle. Lightnin’ gambled and lost thousands. “The reason he was such a terrible gambler,” says Michael Point, who served as his unofficial driver for several years, “was he couldn’t hide his emotions. He’d have aces and his eyes would start twinkling.” Point was a young hippie writer and blues fan who would show up at his boss’s apartment to take him to his nighttime show—in the late afternoon. Lightnin’ had some stops to make. “First we might stop at a barbershop, and he’d go in, shoot the shit with the men there for a while, then say, ‘Can’t stop. I gotta go to work!’ Then we’d go to a bar and have a drink or twelve, then go to a card game. He’d wave at people, stop and talk to women in the street. They loved it. He was a star. They’d say, ‘Here comes Lightnin’ Sam!’”
He recorded when he needed the money, cash up front, as always. In the studio, he drove bass players and drummers crazy and took other artists’ lyrics and melodies and remade them as his own, as always. “I class him the legend of the record business,” Lomax wrote in a 1970 letter to Van Zandt, “since he’s doubtless violated copyrights more so than any others.” By this point, Lightnin’, who was being managed by his doctor, Cecil Harold, had recorded hundreds of songs.
FOR THE MOST PART, LIGHTNIN’ didn’t trust white people, in particular record business white people, all of whom, he claimed, had cheated him. Even Lomax had horrible experiences with the bluesman. On their eight-show 1960 trip to California, every show had gone well except for one, and Lightnin’ complained bitterly and took it out on Lomax, who later wrote in a letter, “I couldn’t help but recall Mark Twain’s description of one of his characters: ‘He had every attribute of a dog except gratitude.’” McCormick took his share of abuse too but says that Lightnin’ would show flashes of contrition. “Sometimes when I’d be driving him somewhere, he’d say, ‘I really do appreciate what you’re doing. Sorry I don’t act like it.’” Wrecks Bell, who played bass with Lightnin’ from 1966 through 1979, says, “He didn’t like white people all that much. He didn’t trust them. He used to make me go in the back door of his apartment.”
But Lightnin’ was plenty suspicious of blacks too—especially musicians. When Clyde Langford, a friend who had grown up in Centerville and whose grandmother had dated Joel Hopkins, went to Houston in the fifties to break into the big-city music business, he asked Lightnin’ to take him around and to show him some things on the guitar. Lightnin’ refused (though he did let him play a few songs at a gig). “He didn’t want me to learn,” Langford says today. “He thought I would use it to try and top him.” Point says that several times he saw Lightnin’ help other bluesmen, but only if he thought they weren’t a threat to him. “His worldview was, people were not nice, the majority of them were out to get you, and you had to fight your way through life.”
Lightnin’ didn’t record much in the seventies, but he gigged a lot, mostly out of Houston and mostly with pickup bands. Approaching sixty, Lightnin’ (now largely on the electric guitar) wasn’t playing as precisely as he had before—plus the Po’ Lightnin’ persona had become, in Point’s words, “character acting.” Between songs he would talk . . . and talk. A live recording from a 1971 concert shows Lightnin’ babbling (“When the woman said she was riding a bicycle by your window, now, I wasn’t riding no bicycle, I was crawling by the window”), claiming “Tex Riddle” stole one of his songs, and berating his band (“Get on there, all of you. Goddam you”).
Performing with him was still an adventure, especially for bass players, who had to keep up with his idiosyncratic chord changes and sudden stops in the middle of a song when he got tired of playing it. Lightnin’ rarely took rhythm sections with him on the road; the promoter would line him up with local musicians who were usually young, inexperienced, and thrilled to be onstage with a legend. “We didn’t rehearse,” remembers drummer Doyle Bramhall, who played half a dozen shows with Lightnin’ in the mid-seventies, “and we didn’t have set lists. You just followed Lightnin’. He would start to play and you’d better be ready. Sometimes he’d stop the band, usually because the bass player had made a mistake. He’d say into the mike, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, me and the bass player got to get it together.’ He’d humiliate him in front of everyone.” Sometimes he just fired bassists and drummers in the middle of a show. It made no difference that they were doing what they were supposed to: Follow the twelve-bar-blues rules. It was Lightnin’, stubborn as ever, who was wreaking the havoc. When pressed, he would utter his mantra: “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to.”
Bramhall, of Dallas, was part of a new generation of white kids—including his buddies Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan—who loved Lightnin’ and his music. He was the wise, cranky elder, and they would sit at his feet, carry his guitars, do what he told them. “You didn’t mind it, because he was Lightnin’,” Bramhall says. “He was always telling stories. When he’d walk into a room, he’d light everything up. He always had to be the center of attention, onstage and off. If somebody in the audience disrupted the performance, he’d stop everything and say, ‘This is Lightnin’s show.’ He was a tough old bird, not easy by any means. But I wouldn’t trade my experience with him for anything.”
Around that time, his daughter Annie Mae, who lived in Crockett, contacted him, and he spent his final years making amends with her, going to visit her or inviting her and her family to Houston a couple times a month, getting to know her daughter, Bertha. Lightnin’ even showed Bertha’s son, Andre, some things on the guitar. “I spent good times with him his last years,” Annie Mae recalled in 2002, not long before she died.
In 1979 he played Carnegie Hall again, this time as part of a show put on by Houston’s de Menil family, with John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, and Honeyboy Edwards. Wrecks Bell, who backed Lightnin’ at the concert (and smuggled in a twelve-pack of his favorite beer, Pearl), says, “I think he was really, really, really proud of getting that recognition.” His last years were quiet ones, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 1981. Lightnin’ was persuaded to get a phone for the first time in his life. He caught pneumonia and entered St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Houston, where he died on January 30, 1982. He was buried in Forest Park Cemetery after a small, private funeral (he had told family and friends he didn’t want any TV cameras), but a public memorial service drew some one thousand people.
Until Beyoncé came along, Lightnin’ was Houston’s most famous musical celebrity, but you won’t find much evidence there of his tenure or influence—not on scruffy Dowling Street, where he was once king, nor anywhere else. Various people tried in the past to get parks and roads named after him, but they gave up when city officials showed no interest.
You have to go to Crockett to see any real tribute to Lightnin’. In the grass across the street from the Camp Street Cafe—formerly the Starlight Barbershop, where he hustled coins with his guitar years ago—sits a statue of Lightnin’ playing an acoustic guitar, panatela in his teeth, fedora on his head, shades on his face. The memorial was masterminded by Pipp and Guy Gillette, the owners of the cafe and fans of the bluesman’s since they saw him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. When it was unveiled in 2002, four generations of his family came out, including his great- and great-great-grandchildren. Antoinette Charles, who controls his estate, didn’t show up, and neither did his manager, Cecil Harold. Their attitude about his legacy remains a mystery. Charles didn’t respond to a request for an interview, and Harold turned down interviews for both of them, saying, “The problem is, people won’t let him stay dead.”
Maybe Lightnin’ would have agreed with his longtime manager’s inscrutable logic, this idea of just leaving him and his amazing life alone. Though Lightnin’ was proud of everything he did, calling himself “the best goddam blues player in the world,” he also hated publicity and fled from fame whenever possible. More to the point, he was just so suspicious and bitter that he would probably assume that, once again, someone was out to get something from Po’ Lightnin’. The thing is, of course, he came by his bitterness honestly. His blues—the ones that kept him on a cot in a rented room, refusing to play by the twelve-bar rules, refusing to be nice or to take any chips off his shoulder—were real, bad, and real bad. Most of the time.
Michael Point remembers a regular sight when he’d arrive a little early to drive his boss to a gig, a sight that demystifies Lightnin’ but deciphers Sam. “He’d be out on the porch with all these neighborhood kids around him,” Point says, “and he’d be playing a kids’ concert for them, all cheerful and positive—Sesame Street versions of his songs. It was the last thing he’d want anyone to know.” Lightnin’ was like Blind Lemon Jefferson, letting his guard down around children, singing songs for fun, just like he had done back home.
But then he’d hand his guitar to Point, who’d put it in the car. Po’ Lightnin’ had a show to do.