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Lightnin' Strikes

The late legendary Houston bluseman finally gets an official historical marker.

No state in the U.S. is prouder of its history than Texas. You might get some argument from folks back East in, hell, maybe Massachusetts, but arguing with Yankees is easy — you can always tell a Texan, you just can't tell him (or her) much.

Anyhow, only God and the Texas Historical Commission know exactly how many historical markers lie within the state's 254 counties. But according to the atlas on the commission's Web site, there are between 150 and 200 in Harris County alone.

That means a whole lot of churches, cemeteries, schools, houses, architectural landmarks (Bayou Bend, the Gulf Building), historical sites Houstonians should know but probably don't (Camp Logan) and places that just have interesting names (Moonshine Hill, near Spring) have been marked. In other words, if you are at all interested in local history, don't make the same mistake Noise did and visit this Web site at work unless you have a couple of hours to kill. We didn't.

What you won't find on there are many historical markers that, besides the churches, have much to do with music at all. Houston's ignorance of its rich musical history, willful or otherwise, has long been a sore spot for those of us who grow weary of crying out in the wilderness that there's more to this city than oil, hospitals, food and freeways.

But things are looking up. Visit that Web site this time next year, and you'll find an entry for a new, long-overdue historical marker honoring a man who was arguably the greatest blues talent to ever call Houston home, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. And for that, we have R. Eric Davis to thank.

Hopkins wasn't born here, but he lived in Houston for nearly 40 years, and he really did live here. Long before he was discovered by eventual fans such as Townes Van Zandt, Billy Gibbons, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Beatles, Hopkins was a fixture at juke joints and dives across the Third Ward and along Dowling Street.

"Houston was Lightnin's town — when it came to the blues, he owned it," Albert Collins once told late Houston Post music critic Bob Claypool.

Hopkins died in 1982 and is buried across the Gulf Freeway from Third Ward in Forest Park Cemetery, where Davis, an Illinois native who moved to Houston with his family in 1993, and his daughter went to visit his grave one afternoon last summer. When they finally found it — it's nearly impossible unless you have very detailed instructions or an experienced guide — Davis was appalled that Hopkins's headstone was "about as big as this plate right here," he says, motioning to his half-eaten lunch at Pappas Bar-B-Q downtown, where he and Noise met up one afternoon last week.

Hopkins did have a few champions before Davis. Not long after his death, then-City Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley, who passed away last year, proposed naming a park after him, an idea many believe was scuttled because of the bluesman's reputation for drinking and gambling (and, just maybe, a little institutional racism). But no one had the patience to see the process all the way through until Davis, who discovered Hopkins's music when a colleague at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston gave him a cassette.

Davis describes the Hopkins marker's path to reality as a "series of waiting processes." After visiting Hopkins's grave, it only took him a couple of weeks to draft a proposal; after considering both Forest Park and the apartments near downtown where Hopkins lived for 25 years, he decided the marker should be located on the property of Project Row Houses in Third Ward, near one of Hopkins's favorite bus stops.

Project Row Houses, which featured the Hopkins-themed art installation "Thunderbolt Special" between fall 2008 and spring 2009, was only too happy to oblige. After that, Davis had to wait for the Harris County Historical Commission to approve his application and forward it to the state level. While waiting on that, knowing that the Texas Historical Commission is much more likely to approve applications that have the funds to pay for the markers than those that don't, he established the Lightnin' Hopkins Marker Fund.

He actually didn't have to wait long for the fund to reach its goal of about $1,800 — thanks to contributions from the Houston Blues Society and board member Jack Henderson, as well as donors from as far away as Illinois and California — but Davis isn't quite through waiting yet. The historical commission still has to approve the text he submitted for the marker (see "The King of Dowling Street"), as well as send him an official invoice for the monument's construction.

"I've never been so eager to write a check in my life," he says.

Davis hopes to have the marker paid for, built and in place by this coming September, but admits that may be a long shot. The marker fund is still accepting donations, this time for the dedication ceremony, at which he hopes to talk someone like Jimmie Vaughan into performing. House of Blues has expressed some interest in helping, he adds, but those discussions are at a very preliminary stage.

So how big a deal is it, really, for Hopkins to have his own historical marker?

Yes, it's huge for people like Noise, Davis, the Blues Society folks and others who care a great deal about celebrating and preserving Houston's musical heritage. And in a city of almost three million people, you could probably fit all of us who fall under that category into the Continental Club at the same time.

For some perspective, Noise asked that very question to someone else who helped make the marker a reality, Down in Houston author, Houston Community College professor and Hopkins Marker Fund donator Dr. Roger Wood.

"While part of the Houston family, especially the African-American part, has been hip to Lightnin's genius and achievement since the mid-20th century, that legacy has generally been ignored or undervalued by the power structure of Houston," he answered.

"It is a good thing when that unjust civic oversight can be addressed, at least symbolically, and even belatedly," Wood added. "It is good for those who have long known Lightnin' in person or via his music, as well as for those who are now hearing his name for the first time or will learn of it in the future because of this officially sanctioned marker."

By the way, Hopkins's plaque won't be the first music-related historical marker erected in Houston. It'll be the second.

A few miles north of downtown, a marker salutes the importance of zydeco to the Creoles who moved to Houston from Louisiana and settled the Fifth Ward enclave once known as Frenchtown. This plaque, located near the intersection of the Eastex Freeway and Collingsworth, mentions longtime Frenchtown resident Clifton Chenier and two neighborhood zydeco venues: the late, lamented Continental Ballroom (formerly Johnson's, after its original owner), and the Silver Slipper, which is still open.

That marker went up all the way back in 2007.
_____________________

The King of Dowling Street

The text R. Eric Davis has proposed for the Lightnin' Hopkins Historical Marker:

"African-American Blues singer and guitarist Sam Lightnin' Hopkins was born March 15, 1912, in Centerville, Texas. Initially learning to play guitar from his brother, Hopkins began his musical career in Central Texas in the Twenties under the tutelage of Texas blues pioneers Alger "Texas" Alexander and Blind Lemon Jefferson. After years of traveling Texas and as far east as Mississippi, Hopkins came to Houston in the mid-1940s and took up residence in the Third Ward.

"Hopkins quickly became a mainstay in the early Houston music clubs, particularly those located around Dowling Street in the Third Ward. In 1946 Hopkins was "discovered" by a talent scout for Aladdin Records and departed for Los Angeles to make his first recordings. It was during these sessions that Hopkins picked up the nickname "Lightnin'."

"Out of these sessions, "Katy Mae" became Hopkins' first hit record. Returning to Houston, Hopkins began recording for the Gold Star label, one of the earliest Houston labels to record blues. Hopkins recorded two certifiable hits in "Short Haired Woman" and "Baby Please Don't Go." Despite early recording success, Hopkins could still be found playing Third Ward and Dowling Street establishments.

"Unlike many early blues greats, Hopkins maintained a regular playing and recording career. During the Fifties Hopkins rarely played outside Texas, but prolifically recorded songs. Larger recognition came during the 1960s with a surging interest in folk and blues music, which led to Hopkins playing before more integrated audiences and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

"Recording approximately 100 albums and 600-800 songs during his historic career, the Texas-born blues giant died of cancer at age 69 on January 30, 1982."

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