Steve Cushing, the award-winning host of the nationally syndicated public radio staple Blues before Sunrise, has spent over thirty years observing and participating in the Chicago blues scene. In his upcoming UIP book Pioneers of the Blues Revival, he interviews many of the prominent white researchers and enthusiasts whose advocacy spearheaded the blues’ crossover into the mainstream starting in the 1960s. Those “pioneers” recount relationships with blues musicians, including the discoveries of prewar bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White.
In the following excerpt from Pioneers of the Blues Revival, historian, writer and record producer Sam Charters recounts how he tracked down blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins. . . .
I had heard his recordings in New Orleans. I was managing a picture frame shop there for a time. The radio was on all the time and I heard a lot of Lightning Hopkins – who was recording a lot in the mid 1950s. I was aware that Lightning was something very special but no one knew where he was or anything about him. We always ate at a place called the Bourbon House on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter which was very raggedy – and cheap! One of the cooks heard us talking and said, ‘That’s my cousin. He’s in Houston.’ So at least we knew that Lightning was in Houston. I was in Houston a couple of times and couldn’t find him. So then as part of The Country Blues trip I decided ’This time I’m gonna find him.’ From one of my New Orleans contacts I had gotten the name Mack McCormick. So I stayed with Mack McCormick who had also been looking for Lightning. So with Mack I’m driving the little green coupe that my wife had – and we managed to find his guitar in pawn. We went to this big pawn shop and there was his guitar – but nobody knew where he was. At this point Lightning’s life was very much on the edge – a lot of gambling, a lot of things he was involved in that weren’t legal – so nobody wanted to tell us where he was. Who were these two white guys who obviously were some kind of police or something. Who were they – and what were they doing looking for Lightning? Finally – Mack had a job and he had to go back to work – so that next morning I set out by myself. The day before we’d met an old girlfriend and we met Lightning’s sister, who wouldn’t tell us much of anything. So the next day I was driving down Dowling Street, a grey winter’s day and I stopped at a red light and a car stopped beside me with the window rolled down. There was a man with dark glasses and he looked at me. ‘You lookin’ for Lightnin’?’(laughs) I said, ‘Yes I am.’ He said, ‘That’s me.’ Immediately Lightning understood that I was someone wanting to make a record – it was something he was totally familiar with – and I would, of course, pay him money – which everybody did. He didn’t have a guitar and I made the decision then – which really irritated him – but for the audience at that moment, 1959, validated what we did. I went and rented him an acoustic guitar. And we were driving along – and I remember the broken string, it had only five strings – and we passed a bunch of school girls going off – and Lightning, just on the five strings, began playing more guitar than I’d ever heard, singing his version of “Good Morning Little School Girl” – and I realized that I really had something here. I had very little money – but I arranged to record him in his room – he had a really ragged room that he was renting from a lady on the back of Dowling Street. It was quiet – it was on a quiet street – that was the most important thing – and it was actually not a large room – but it had hanging drapes and things so the acoustics were pretty good – and I had a decent microphone, so I said, ‘Lightning let’s go!’ So he sat on a chair – I sat on the bed with the microphone in between us. I bought him a pint of gin – that’s all I could afford – and then we started.
I hand-held the microphone so I could move it back and forth. When he was singing I could hold it closer to his lips- but hold back so he couldn’t lean too far forward and pop and give me distortion. And when he played a guitar solo I could then gently move the microphone down to the guitar. So for three hours I held my arm out straight making this recording (laughs). He hadn’t ever thought of an LP – he was entirely thinking in terms of a single – and I’d offered him all the money I had – $200. And of course when he’d done two songs as far as he was concerned, he’d earned his $200 (laughs). At this point he was wary – he was absolutely without a penny. He couldn’t imagine that what I was doing had any reality – and the fact that it was going to be $200 was finally all that mattered. And then I began asking him for old songs – and that seemed truly to spur something in him. There was enough gin to draw him back into his memories but not so much that he became the maudlin drunk I had to work with later on – when more money was involved. I think because it was brand new what was happening to him – this was the first time he’d been asked any of these questions about the past – about Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was an artist – all the other things Lightning was, he was a consummate artist. Also, since I’d done a lot of field recording I didn’t hesitate to make him tune the damn guitar – so that it kept staying continually in tune – and because I had had a lot of experience at this point recording, I got a fairly decent recorded sound. I was very very happy with the record. It’s interesting – it was much more modern and contemporary than the kind of recording I’d been doing with the Memphis Jug Band or the Mobile Strugglers which was genuinely in the 1920s country blues mode. This was Lightning – which was a timeless blues expression. When I brought the tapes back that evening and played them for Mack McCormick, he was appalled. He thought it was just rock and rhythm & blues ‘…and why did I bother with that?’ But of course six months later he was suing me as Lightning’s manager demanding to know where the royalties were. (laughs)
Pioneers of the Blues Revival is set to be published in July of 2014.