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Lightnin' Hopkins Dedication Draws Overflow Crowd

L-R: R. Eric Davis, Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins. For more photos from Saturday, see our slideshow here.
L-R: R. Eric Davis, Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins. For more photos from Saturday, see our slideshow here.
Photos by Matthew Keever

Lightnin' Hopkins is official.

Saturday morning, a crowd that overflowed the tent erected due to the inclement weather (though it never actually rained) showed up to witness the dedication of a state historical marker honoring Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, the legendary bluesman who lived in Third Ward from the late 1940s until his death in January 1982.

The marker was unveiled around 11 a.m. near the intersection of Dowling and Francis streets, on the grounds of Project Row Houses. Hopkins was once so familiar in the area that he became known as "The King of Dowling Street," and that particular corner as "Lightnin's Corner."

L-R: Houston City Councilman James Rodriguez, artist Terry Adkins and Lightnin' Hopkins' granddaughters Jessica Woodson and Bertha Kelly
L-R: Houston City Councilman James Rodriguez, artist Terry Adkins and Lightnin' Hopkins' granddaughters Jessica Woodson and Bertha Kelly

Before the unveiling, several people spoke to the crowd, led off by R. Eric Davis, whose visit to Hopkins' grave in Forest Park Lawndale cemetery in 2009 was the catalyst for obtaining the historical marker. When he realized the modest gravestone was the only public memorial in the city for a musician who continues to be recognized as one of the most fundamental influences on both blues and rock and roll, Davis said, "I knew something had to be done to begin recognizing and reclaiming an important part of Houston's cultural fabric."

Davis' voice caught several times as he read a long list of people and organizations that helped raise funds for the marker and dedication ceremony, including the Houston Blues Society, House of Blues and numerous private donors. House of Blues donated the tent, stage, production equipment and hot dogs served after the ceremony as local blues artists Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy, Milton Hopkins (Lightnin's cousin) and Texas Johnny Brown performed.

Houston City Councilman James Rodriguez, whose district includes Third Ward, read a resolution from Mayor Annise Parker's office congratulating Davis on his efforts and proclaiming Saturday "Lightnin' Hopkins Day." Harris County Historical Foundation representatives read further congratulations from County Judge Ed Emmett, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, and presented commemorative plaques to Hopkins' granddaughters Bertha Kelly and Jessica Woodson.

 

Milton Hopkins performed one of his distant cousin's best-known songs, the sprawling "Mister Charlie."
Milton Hopkins performed one of his distant cousin's best-known songs, the sprawling "Mister Charlie."

After the ceremony, looking a little less nervous, Davis said seeing the historical marker in its permanent home was "surreal."

"This thing's been sitting in my garage for two months," he said. "It's weird to see it up."

Davis added that he hoped Saturday was the first step toward securing proper recognition for other Houston blues figures and landmarks whose fame isn't quite as far-reaching as Hopkins'. He was able to use some leftover funds to buy a gravestone for Hopkins' onetime musical partner, pianist James "Thunder" Smith.

An application for a historical marker outside the nearby El Dorado Ballroom, where many top names in jazz, R&B and blues played from the '40s to the '60s, has already been submitted.

The Houston-area graves of bluesmen Elmore Nixon and Juke Boy Bonner remain unmarked or in severe disrepair, Davis said, adding that he and Houston blues scholar Dr. Roger Wood (who also spoke at Saturday's ceremony) have been discussing forming a foundation similar to the Mississippi Blues Trail.

"There's as much history here as there is in Mississippi," Davis said.


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