Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues By Alan Govenar Chicago Review Press, 368 pp., $28.95.
With the dedication of a state historical marker in the Third Ward where he lived and played, Lightnin' Hopkins' name and music has gotten a bit of a boost lately.
Long overdue, many would say, and this full-length biography by Govenar (Texas Blues) provides an invaluable companion to all those records on dozens of different labels in telling the story of the life and career of perhaps the city's greatest musical export. And import: Hopkins moved to Houston in 1945 and stayed until his death in 1982, so it's not surprising that the city itself is a character, with lots of references to locations, clubs and institutions.
And though some blacks had referred to it as "Heavenly Houston" in the late '30s for the opportunities it afforded for advancement, Hopkins was always cognizant of the racial divide and problems that could occur, even long after white audiences had thoroughly embraced him. Govenar mentions an interview with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who told about his dreams as a child of the '50s to move to Texas because "that's where Lightnin' Hopkins was from."
That his performance style and stage patter would differ between, say, a Third Ward juke joint the size of a living room vs. a stage at Rice University - where he shared a 1968 bill with the 13th Floor Elevators - or Fitzgerald's is a crucial point that Govenar makes. Nevertheless, Hopkins' ability to improvise lyrics on the spot - mentioning current events, his feelings at the moment or even addressing people directly in the audience - were unparalleled among bluesmen.
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The author also posits the theory that Hopkins could have been a much bigger name in blues, albeit for his frequent drinking and gambling, reluctance to travel, and preference for a more country blues style against current trends. Govenar writes that Hopkins "had a perceived danger of unfamiliar places," and would even memorize details about airplane crashes, perhaps calculating his odds of surviving any given trip.
Still, Lightnin' was a master of his own image, knowing full well that the shades, sharp suits and flask of gin created an image. Govenar also notes how laid-back Lightnin' took many aspects of his career and the hoops he made concert promoters and record producers go through just trying to find him, as many a confused white faces (who would inevitably have to pay up front before a guitar note was struck) drove around the Third Ward "lookin' for Lightnin'."
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The book's one weakness - perhaps unavoidable - is while Govenar does a great job detailing Hopkins' music, recording sessions, and shows, the reader is still left with a gap in knowing about the man. More first-person quotes might have helped, but part of that obstacle was Hopkins' own self-created mystique.
"He was free form, at once confiding, endearing, and deceiving, saying and singing whatever he felt," Govenar writes. ""He was a man of the moment, and by changing his story or improvising a new verse or line to an old song, he was able to take control of his own destiny and to engage the listener with details no one else had ever heard."
So while His Life and Blues gives readers the most thorough look at "Po' Lightnin'" to date, fans may never get to know all they want about the man behind the shades.
But in a day where every musician's stray utterance, tweet, belch or bum show is thoroughly documented, maybe leaving a little mystery isn't such a bad thing.