Sam Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912. When he was eight years old, a chance meeting with foundational bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church social was the beginning of a decades-long career. With his mentor, Hopkins began playing local picnics and evening gigs, working on a cotton farm with his family during the day. As an adult, he made his way to Houston, where his alliance with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith gave him his own stage name: Lightnin’.
Hopkins played dance parties, socials and clubs in Houston and around East Texas for the next several decades, supplementing his income with field work when necessary. He experienced a few episodes of relationship strife and a stint on a chain gang (though some historians regard this as a “tall tale”)—naturally, these memories grew into songs. In the late 1940s, his music career picked up and he signed his first record contract. This was far from a big break, however, as record companies rarely guaranteed royalty payments. To establish a measure of ownership and security over his work, Hopkins demanded cash payment after every song performed in a recording session.