Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ACA Studio sessions from 1954 -- most of which were released on the New York-based Herald label -- are among his most vital, but also his most misunderstood. Though not best-sellers, they were popular enough among R&B/rock and roll buyers to merit consistent releases and even re-releases for at least five years in the mid-to-late 1950s. It was only after white people discovered Lightnin' in 1959 that these recordings went into a kind of critical limbo. The folk enthusiasts who made Lightnin' famous to a whole new audience imagined him as the pure folk heir to Blind Lemon Jefferson and the early Texas blues tradition, and electric guitars had no place in that stream. So, ironically, at the same time Muddy Waters was being praised for his innovation in electrifying Mississippi blues in Chicago, Lightnin' was being castigated for doing the same thing in Texas. But critics didn't blame him. They instead blamed the evil record companies for supposedly "forcing" the electric guitar on Lightnin' against his will. This tenacious myth has died hard in modern writing about the blues. A Houston Chronicle story on Lightnin' in the early 2000s stated that he only started playing electric guitar in the 1960s.
Lightnin' is in fine form for these sessions. For once he has a small band (bass and drums only) that sound like they have played with Lightnin' at live gigs, and know what to expect, rather than the last minute, thrown-together bands that bring down so many of his sixties recordings. They make Lightnin' himself more disciplined and sharp, and though the sessions are loose and some mistakes are made, he doesn't wander off erratically into 13 and 14 bar patterns like he does on later records. Perhaps most amazing to modern listeners brought up on the "folk blues" artist are the instrumentals. "Move on Out Boogie" and "Hopkins Sky Hop" feature the standard Hopkins riffs we've all heard a million times, but never played this fast! These tunes rock hard.
A legend has grown that all of the songs were recorded over a two day period at ACA in Houston in April, 1954. The source for this legend is unknown. Mike Leadbitter’s 1968 Blues Discography only lists a “1954” date, but the current edition a la Fancourt affixes the April, 1954 date, proposing 10 masters were made the first day and 18 (including four with singer Ruth Ames) the second, for a total of 28. The bass and drums support, as well as the sound and feel of the 28 masters, certainly suggest that they were recorded in close proximity and at the same studio, but 18 in one day seems unlikely (though possible for a one-take artist like Lightnin’). The location of ACA is certain due to the sonics of these masters, with a tape-delay "echo" added to all but two of the songs. This was beyond Gold Star's ability at the time.The fact that two of the songs were also issued by Ace with ACA masters and CHS Publishing also points to ACA as the location. CHS was co-owned by Bill Holford and H.M. Crowe, the likely financiers of these sessions. The rights to the songs were undoubtedly purchased outright, as was the usual deal with Hopkins, and then shopped around to various labels for lease agreements. Herald bought most of the leases but the some songs were also released on Ace and Chart.
Crowe had been involved with Lightnin' for a long time. Lightnin' calls out "Mister Crowe" on his first Gold Star single from 1947.
The difficulty is with the sheer number of songs. Twenty-eight songs at Lightnin's normal sale rate of $100 per number would have been far too expensive a price to pay for Holford and Crowe. And why record so many? They had no reason to expect that they could lease that many masters to one company at one time. The normal practice would have been to have recorded four to eight songs, see if they could be sold and possibly become hits, and then bring the artist back for more if sales justified it.
Sarg Records’ owner Charlie Fitch told me in 1998 that he met Hopkins at ACA during one of his (Charlie's) early sessions there. The dates for all of Sarg’s 1954 ACA sessions are known, and are as follows:
March 18, 1954
April 15, 1954
May 2, 1954
June 21, 1954
August 9, 1954
August 23, 1954
This suggests the possibility for the March 18 or April 15 session dates being shared with Hopkins. May and June may also be possible if, as I suspect, the sessions were not done over a two-day period.
Of the 28 songs recorded, 24 are by Hopkins, and four by a young female singer listed as his “protege,” Ruth (Blues) Ames. Two of these are still unissued. Despite her less than impressive vocal talents, Ames -- who made no other known recordings -- was still associated with Lightnin’ as late as 1967, and she was filmed with him for The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Musically, Hopkins’ sides are in sharp contrast to most of the artists on Herald and its subsidiary, Ember. There were huge, million-selling hits by the balladeers like Faye Adams as well as doo-wop groups like the Five Satins and the Silhouettes. It was a very New York-centered label, with virtually no taste for the down home blues guitar of men like Hopkins. Yet he had 17 releases on the label over seven years (1954-1960), culminating in an album released in 1960. These must have sold steadily, and it was through his Herald recordings that most radio/jukebox listeners experienced Lightnin’s music from 1954 through 1960. He demonstrably was not at all “forgotten” by the music industry after 1954, as it has been popularly written and believed, and there’s no reason to think that he would not have continued recording for other R&B labels if Sam Charters (Folkways), Mack McCormick (Tradition), and the folk movement had not intervened.
In a Jazz Monthly piece from this period, McCormick rails against the exploitational “non-union, flat fee, sign-all-rights-away operaters” of the music business who found Houston attractive for that reason. But it’s an erroneous and misleading assertion. Hopkins was not a member of the musician’s union, and by his own accounts, preferred working for a flat fee (not a royalty) which included selling the rights of the song. What financial agreements Hopkins did or did not make with any of the people involved with the Herald sessions is, of course, unknown. ACA owner Bill Holford had an excellent reputation, and it’s highly unlikely he was involved with anything underhanded.
When twelve of the ACA songs were collected on a Herald LP in 1960, Charles Edward Smith (the co-editor of the seminal book Jazzmen from 1939) dismissed them as "blatant sound," which is to say, mere noise. The "real" Lightnin' was to be found in the comforting acoustic quietude of the Tradition LPs, which Smith gave high marks.
Few, if any, blues fans today would agree with Smith.
I wish I had more details on these sessions to relate. Probably only Lightnin’, Bill Holford, H.M. Crowe, and Herald A&R man Jack Angel knew the exact circumstances of these remarkable contributions to the blues. Without their input, the real story of the Herald sessions will remain forever uncertain. What’s not uncertain is the power of the music.
c. April, 1954. ACA Sound and Film Studio, 5520-22 Washington Ave., Houston, Tx.Lightnin' Hopkins, Vocal/electric guitar with Donald Cooks, bass; Ben Turner, drums; Ruth Ames, vocal*.
Lightnin’s Boogie (Herald 425, 504, LP 1012) released 1954; 504 from 1958
Don’t Think ’Cause You’re Pretty (Herald 425, 504, LP 1012)
NB: 504 A-side is a remastered version of 425-A. 504 B-side is a remastered version of 425-B with the vocals edited.
Life I Used to Live (Herald 428, 547, LP 1012) released 1954; 547 from 1959
Lightnin’s Special (Herald 428, 547, LP 1012)
Sick Feeling Blues (Herald 436, 542, LP 1012) released 1954; 542 from 1959
Moving On Out Boogie (Herald 436, 542)
Early Mornin’ Boogie (Herald 443, 531) released 1954-early 1955; 531 from 1958
Nothin’ but the Blues (Herald 443)
NB: Jazz Journal [UK], January, 1959 lists Herald 531 as a “recent American release.”
They Wonder Who I Am (Herald 449) released 1955
Evil Hearted Woman (Herald 449, LP 1012)
My Baby’s Gone (Herald 456, LP 1012) released 1955
Don’t Need No Job (Herald 456)
Blues for My Cookie (Herald 465) released 1955
Had a Gal Called Sal (Herald 465)
Hopkins' Sky Hop (Herald 471, LP 1012) released early 1956
Lonesome in Your Home (Herald 471)
NB: Cashbox, R&B Beat, March, 1956: “Jack Angel reports that Lightning Hopkins has broken POP in St. Louis with his “Sky Hop” boogie.” (Emphasis in original.)
Bad Boogie/My Little Kewpie Doll (Ace 516/Herald 520, LP 1012)
Wonder What is Wrong with Me/Lightnin' Don't Feel Well (Ace 516/Herald 520)
NB: Ace single mastered at ACA on February 13, 1956.
Ace single released circa May, 1956. Herald 520 released 1958.
Grandma’s Boogie (Herald 476, 531) released c. May, 1956; 531 from 1958
I Love You Baby (Herald 476)
That’s Alright Baby* (Herald 483) released c. July, 1956
Finally Met My Baby* (Herald 483)
Shine On Moon (Herald 490) released 1956
NB: Herald 483 credited to "Lightnin' Hopkins with his Protege Ruth (Blues) Ames.
Sittin' Down Thinkin' (Herald 490, LP 1012)
Remember Me (Herald 497) released 1957
Please Don’t Go Baby (Herald 497)
Walkin’ the Streets (Chart 636) released 1956?
Mussy Haired Woman (Chart 636)
NB: The Chart single was the only one drawn from these sessions to be released with no tape-delay "echo" added to the masters.
Walkin’ and Drinkin’* unissued
God Made Man* unissued
Ten songs from these sessions were retitled and reissued by Herald in the late 1950s. These are detailed below.
“Don’t Think ’Cause You’re Pretty” was edited and retitled “Blues is a Mighty Bad Feelin’” on Herald 504.
“Lightnin’s Boogie” retitled “Boogie Woogie Dance” on Herald 504.
“Life I Used to Live” retitled “Gonna Change My Ways” on Herald 547.
“Lightnin’s Special” retitled “Flash Lightnin’” on Herald 547.
"Sick Feeling blues” retitled “I’m Achin’” on Herald 542.
“Moving On Out Boogie” retitled “Let’s Move” on Herald 542.
“Early Mornin’ Boogie” retitled “Hear Me Talkin’” on Herald 531.
“Grandma’s Boogie” retitled “Lightnin’s Stomp” on Herald 531.
“Bad Boogie” (Ace 516) retitled “My Little Kewpie Doll” on Herald 520 and Herald LP 1012.
“Wonder What is Wrong with Me” (Ace 516) was edited and retitled “Lightnin’ Don’t Feel Well” on Herald 520.
(LP) LIGHTNIN’ AND THE BLUES: Lightnin’ Hopkins Sings a collection of American Folk Lore. (sic) (Herald LP-1012)
Late 1960 (reviewed in Saturday Review, Dec. 3,1960)
Side A: Nothin’ But the Blues / Don’t Think ‘Cause You’re Pretty / Lightnin’s Boogie / Life I Used to Live / Sick Feelin’ Blues / Evil Hearted Woman
Side B: Blues For My Cookie / Sittin’ Down Thinkin’ / My Baby’s Gone / Lonesome in Your Home / Lightnin’s Special / My Little Kewpie Doll
(Three different pressings of this LP exist.) (Re-released on MVM in the 1960s with the title Nothin' But the Blues.)
The original Herald pressings are on flat yellow labels (white for promo copies) and were all pressed as both 45 and 78 rpms except possibly 547. Multi-colored labels also exist for at least two releases (531 and 542 have been documented) and these may be early ‘60s reissues.
“On previous sessions Lightnin remembers Jack Angel as having represented Jax-Sittin’ In With...even where the songs are credited to Lightnin, others may be collecting royalties. ‘Lightnin don’t feel well’ on Herald listed (L. Hopkins) on the label has the actual copyright in the name of Henry Stone according to the files of Broadcast Music, Inc. And when tunes are copyrighted in his name Lightnin has had little success collecting royalties.”
--Mack McCormick, “Lightning Hopkins Discography Pt 2,” Jazz Monthly, Dec. 1959
Gart, Galen. ARLD - The American Record Label Directory and Dating Guide, 1940-1959.Milford, New Hampshire: Big Nickel Publications, 1989.
Gart, Galen. First Pressings. The History of Rhythm & Blues. Volume 6: 1956.Milford, New Hampshire: Big Nickel Publications, 1991.
(Source for all 1956 Cashbox data.)
Holt, John, et al. Lightnin’ Hopkins [Discography]. Texas Blues Society, 1965.
Shaw, Arrnold. Honkers and Shouters. Macmillan, 1978. (Herald chapter, pp. 450-460)
Strachwitz, Chris and Mack McCormick. Lightnin’ Hopkins Discography I and II. Jazz Monthly [UK], Dec. 1959, 1960.
Whitburn,Joel. Top R&B Singles 1942-1999. Chart Data Compiled From Billboard's R&B Singles Charts, 1942-1999. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research, Inc. 2000.