BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the most versatile and accomplished early rock vocalists whose time in the field was rather sporadic as she devoted more time to other musical pursuits, but she left a notable mark in her brief forays into the genre all the same.

Hopkins was born in December 1924 in New Orleans and while still a child – as Lil’ Helen Matthews (her real name) – got her first national exposure thanks to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson when she opened for her at a show in her church (which she herself, at eleven years old, booked!) and blew her away. Jackson got her a spot in the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers where under the tutelage of Alberta Johnson, the teenage Matthews spent a decade honing her skills on stage and radio and eventually on record.

After leaving gospel behind in the late 1940’s she moved to Oakland where she met Johnny Otis who gave her the stage name Linda Hopkins and recruited her to replace Little Esther as his female vocalist on record, though Esther was still touring with Otis despite being on another label.

She remained with him only a short time in 1951 but got several singles out of their brief stint together, as well as records on Savoy she cut without him later in the year. By the next year she was in a jazz vein performing throughout the Pacific Islands before returning to the States two years later upon which she resumed her rock career, first with Federal Records in the mid-150’s and later with Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary.

None of that made much impact and while she was able to parlay her great voice and stage presence into quite a few spots on package tours, it wasn’t until she met Jackie Wilson in the early 1960’s and he got her a contract with Brunswick that she was able to start to live up to her potential commercially. She had just one charted hit, a duet with Wilson, but her records were more positively reviewed and she toured with Wilson for a number of years, two vocal powerhouses throwing down each night.

Prior to this she’d taken acting lessons from the legendary Stella Adler and by the the Nineteen Seventies she was making her next career stop on the stage where she won a Tony Award for Inner City and then wrote and starred in a one-woman show based on the life of Bessie Smith that drew widespread acclaim.

Though she kept recording in a wide variety of styles her biggest accolades came from her stage work as in the late 1980’s was nominated for another Tony Award for her role in Black And Blue and then followed that up by creating yet another stage play on her own in the late 1990’s.

By the time she passed away at the age of 92 in 2017, Linda Hopkins had sung more songs in more styles in more wildly diverse venues than virtually anyone who’d once been a rock artist and while her commercial success on record was relatively limited, the talent exhibited across all of these fields was immense.
 
 
LINDA HOPKINS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy):

DOGGIN’ BLUES
(Savoy 780; March, 1951)
In her secular debut Hopkins turns in what might be the most technically impressive performance of any rock singer to date featuring effortless power, superb register switching and emotional conviction on a song she co-wrote which clearly was designed to knock listeners for a loop. (8)

LIVING AND LOVING YOU
(Savoy 780; March, 1951)
A song that puts the wraps on Hopkins’s greatest skills and forces her to rein herself in too much for while she does her best the material itself is only fair and there’s not much of note happening musically either to make this modest effort worthwhile. (4)

WARNING BLUES
(Savoy 812; August, 1951)
Though Hopkins once again impresses with the quality of her voice, she remains too diverse within a song to make it work, as she’s determined to highlight her best attributes even though the song, which she wrote, calls for something else entirely at times. (4)

I’LL ASK MY HEART
(Savoy 812; August, 1951)
Make no mistake about it, Hopkins sings this very well and even adds enough soulfulness to not have it sound completely alien to rock fans, but it’s obviously a blatant appeasement to pop audiences in a misguided attempt to cross over and thus it doesn’t work in a rock context. (2)