At last, following the reissue of his Aladdin, Gold Star, and Sittin' In With sessions, all of the early recordings by Lightnin' Hopkins are now available on CD. Recorded by Gold Star boss Bill Quinn in Houston between 1948 and 1951, when Lightnin' was at the height of his ability as well as his popularity, these sides were sold to the Bihari brothers for release on their Modern subsidiary label, RPM. Only seven 78s of this material appeared as RPM singles at the time, with another six titles issued later on various LPs, including a Kent album from 1970. The remainder has stayed in the vaults until now.
Made during Lightnin's most creative period, these Quinn recordings feature him at his inventive best. The CD opens with the belting 'Jake Head Boogie', but includes many slower, thoughtful renditions, including the moving 'Ticket Agent', and his feelings on the Korean conflict in 'War News Blues'. Unusually for Lightnin', several cover versions of other people's songs are presented here, such as Charles Brown's 'Drifting Blues', Lowell Fulson's 'Everyday I Have The Blues', Little Son Joe's 'Black Rat Swing' (under the title of 'Black Cat' - another belter), as well as the gospel standard 'Needed Time', the one title on which Lightnin' sounds uncharacteristically hesitant, especially on the more up-tempo alternative take. Other covers, such as Blind Lemon's 'One Kind Favor' and Big Maceo's 'Worried Life Blues' (as 'Some Day Baby', with 'Beggin' You To Stay' being a close relative) are more common items of Lightnin's repertoire. All are given his own unique treatment. In selling masters of Lightnin's recordings to other labels, as was Bill Quinn's wont, one seems to have been so good he sold it twice, since 'Mistreater Blues' on this RPM set is identical to 'Mistreated Blues' on the Aladdin collection. All of the tracks feature Lightnin's dynamic guitar sound except 'Candy Kitchen', where his equally distinctive piano style is to be heard. This CD includes the original recording from the RPM 78 as well as a previously unissued version of the same take on which a guitar has been over-dubbed. In his liner notes, Chris Smith suggests that the guitarist may have been Lowell Fulson.
Ace have also managed to squeeze in three previously unissued alternative takes, of 'Everyday I Have The Blues', 'Last Affair', and 'Bad Luck And Trouble'. And I do mean squeeze. These are listed as 'short takes', and each runs for around one minute.
Ace Records have taken great pains to improve the sound quality of the original recordings by non-intrusive sound processing, and their efforts have paid off. The original RPM releases had reverb added, possibly in an attempt to mask deficiencies of the acetate masters which were evident even then. In a few cases, where the acetates are now too noisy for comfort, Ace have remastered from the original RPM 78s, and possibly even from Kent LP 9008. Whatever, the resulting improvement in sound quality makes this Ace CD a joy to listen to. Despite the tantalising brevity of the 'short takes' and the omission of lyric transcriptions, this release is an important testament to Lightnin's unique powers, and an essential purchase.
This album features material licensed to, and later recorded for, the Modern/RPM labels in the early 50s; much of it hadn't been reissued before this album came out in 1999 and some of it wasn't issued at the time at all. This probably isn't the place to start if you haven't heard Lightnin' Hopkins before... but if you're a fan, it's essential - it captures him in his prime, largely unaccompanied and includes a few of his very finest recordings. The opening title track is an absolutely scorching boogie, and a fine song to boot, featuring some of the best rocking blues guitar ever laid down by anyone - the guitar tone and the sheer devil-may-care attitude are completely riveting; it's so good the album is worth buying just for this track. The bad news is that this IS the best track, and in particular, if you're not as keen on slower material, this is by far the most energetic item here. However, the good news is that, like most records of Lightnin' Hopkins in his prime, there's a lot more to like here - his lyrics are always fascinating and witty and there's plenty more fine guitar playing. Another stand out is the second track, Lonesome Dog Blues, a completely off the wall slowie with the guitar imitating dog howls in a most amusing fashion. Other than that it's more typical Lightnin' Hopkins, to the extent that there is such a thing. He does a piano number, and a rare religious one, and the excellent Bad News From The War, presumably referring to (but not specifying) the then current Korean War. For the uninitiated, probably the best comparison is early John Lee Hooker, with which this is contemporary. Both played electric guitar without any backing band, both (on their uptempo numbers) rocked in a highly convincing fashion, and both displayed an utter disregard for conventional notions of structure such as the 12-bar. The similarities stop there - Hopkins, though probably a better guitarist at his best, was perhaps less consistent and often far looser, and had less tendency to riff away as Hooker does on the likes of Boogie Chillen, and his persona as expressed through his songs is quite different, with a wider range of subject matter - but if you like one you're more than likely to enjoy the other.