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Bob Bowman

This month, on the 20th anniversary of his death, blues singer Lightnin¹ Hopkins will get the recognition that often eluded him in the land where he was born.

Once described by Texas Monthly as the state¹s best blues singer of the last century, Hopkins will be immortalized January 30 with a statue on Crockett¹s Camp Street, where he played as a kid and performed for tips in a barber shop and feed store.

Despite his nickname, Hopkins didn¹t play faster than other blues singers. Nor did he invent a new style, make a lot or money, or produce a series of hits. ³What he did was play country blues--raw as rotgut, real as rent, and as heartbreaking and hilarious as the world around him,² said music writer John Ratliff.

Hopkins was born Sam Hopkins at Centerville on March 15, 1902. When his father died, his mother moved the family -- five brothers and sisters -- to Leona. At the age of eight, Hopkins made a cigar-box guitar with chicken wire strings. By ten he was playing with his cousin, Alger (Texas) Alexander, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who encouraged him. Hopkins got into trouble with the law and served time in the Houston County Prison Farm in the 1930s, but soon returned to the blues-club circuit. In 1946 got his first big break in Los Angeles when he made a record with piano player Wilson (Thunder) Smith. The combination led to the nickname of "Thunder and Lightning".

Over his career, Lightnin¹ made records for nearly 20 different record companies. In the l950s, he began working with legendary producer Sam Chambers and his music began to reach a mainstream white audience. He switched to an acoustic guitar and became a hit during the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.

Hopkins played at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seger and Joan Baez and toured with the American Folk Blues Festival. By the end of the sixties he was opening for such bands as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. He also played before Queen Elizabeth in a command performance and worked on the soundtrack for the movie Sounder.

But in the Texas Bible belt where he was born, Hopkins¹ music was seldom appreciated, probably because he sang about women, fighting, gambling, and prison life. He died in 1982 and was buried in Houston.

Hopkins rightful place in East Texas history could have been overlooked if two cowboy musicians -- Guy and Pipp Gillette of Crockett -- had not discovered that their grandfather and father¹s lives were intertwined with Hopkins¹ career.

The Crockett barber shop and feed store where Hopkins played was owned by Hoyt Porter, the Gillette brothers¹ grandfather. Their father, Guy Gillette, was a former Broadway actor and nationally known photographer who once shot Hopkins¹ picture at Carnegie Hall.

The Gillette brothers -- who turned Porter¹s old store into the Camp Street Cafe where some of Texas¹ best cowboy and blues singers play weekend gigs -- were fascinated by Hopkins¹ roots in East Texas, as well as his spontaneous storytelling and his unpredictable guitar playing.

They persuaded the Piney Woods Arts Association and Crockett businessmen to commission a statue of Hopkins by Crockett artist Jim Jeffries.

On January 30, Hopkins¹ daughter, Annie Mae Box of Crockett, will join some of Texas¹ leading bluesmen in the dedication of a memorial to the man who during his life was the walking embodiment of the blues.