No tags :(

Share it

SAVOY 780; MARCH 1951



Nobody had a more diverse show – on stage or on record – in the early 1950’s rock scene than Johnny Otis.

From his band which was stocked with dynamic musicians, all capable of being the featured instrumentalist on any given song, to his vast retinue of vocalists, the success he’d had over the previous fifteen months was as much a testament to his abilities as a talent scout as his abilities as a bandleader, songwriter and producer.

But when the biggest star in his galaxy, Little Esther, departed their record label for another as 1951 dawned it left a huge hole that he’d be unable to ever fill, at least when it came to having a guaranteed hitmaker at his side.

Though his efforts to replace her may not have come to much commercially speaking, his attempts were hardly lacking when it came to the skills of those he recruited to try and fill her shoes… foremost among them a twenty-six year old who’d already been a professional singer for more than half her life to this point in a wide array of styles ranging from gospel to jazz before she ever thought about rocking and rolling with Johnny’s crew.


I Found Somebody New
The Linda Hopkins story is far too big to be briefly told, but since we have no choice here are the essential elements you need to know:

Born in New Orleans in 1924 she was singing professionally in a gospel group for ten years starting in 1936, drafted by none other than Mahalia Jackson after little Helen Matthews, her real name, knocked them dead at her own parish at eleven years old when Jackson was there to perform.

Upon leaving gospel for secular music she landed in the Bay Area where a few years later, in 1950, she met Johnny Otis who gave her the stage name she’d use for the rest of her career… which lasted until her death at 92 in 2017.

Along the way she won a Tony Award for her stage work, wrote a play about blues legend Bessie Smith, which also starred in, and had a rock hit in a duet with Jackie Wilson in the early 1960’s. Clearly this was someone destined for greatness whether or not Johnny Otis ever ran into her.

But Otis definitely did help her on her way, not only in giving her a new name – possibly to distance herself from those who knew her as a gospel act? – but also because with him she was able to show what she could do in a style that was far removed from what she HAD done, thereby giving notice as to her versatility, not to mention her startling vocal prowess.

With Little Esther’s departure to Federal Records as 1950 closed, Otis knew that he needed a female singer to keep the diversity of his own output from falling off. He may still have Mel Walker to handle the male vocal turns, mostly crooning ballads designed to make women weak in the knees, but since so much of his success came from writing songs expressing the female point of view he could hardly afford to cut that out from their repertoire.

Hopkins was a far different type of singer than Esther was however. She had a much better pure voice, effortlessly strong, yet tender in her quieter moments, and together Hopkins and Otis wisely decided to showcase the differences on Doggin’ Blues, a remarkably self-assured performance by someone who never sang this kind of music on record before.

It may have fallen well short of the sales he’d gotten with Little Esther, but in terms of making you stop and take notice, this got the job done and then some.


I Can Do That Same Thing Too
What’s interesting about the composition is how simple and straightforward the structure of it is… this was a song that easily could’ve been written for Esther, or Marilyn Scott or any number of female singers that Otis would work with over the years.

It’s a basic mid-tempo song with frequent stops and starts in the pacing to set up the dramatic qualities as the singer is delivering a lyric that is nothing we haven’t heard before – a resilient lament about being left by the one you love.

That’s not to say it’s simplistic or even uneventful within the rather ordinary framework. There’s some great individual moments in the arrangement for Pete Lewis’s guitar to add its harsh commentary and though they’re used sparingly the horns get a chance to respond to the vocals by adding an upbeat counterpoint to the more dire mood being set by everything else.

There’s a lot of variance in what’s being played and as such it keeps the song moving forward and ensures it never gets too predictable along the way.

But as good as the musicians are it’s not them that you’ll be talking about when Doggin’ Blues comes to a close… it’s Linda Hopkins, who with this performance might just vault into first place among female vocalists when it comes to sheer technical ability displayed on record.

This Is What SHE Said
This is a showstopper of a performance and that’s exactly how it was conceived, as every element of the song is built around giving Hopkins the room to stretch out… in all kinds of ways. Since she co-wrote it she knows just where, when and how she’s going for broke as this plays out.

Hopkins is a revelation here as she moans, wails, sighs and screams throughout the record, all of it while staying completely under control, never allowing herself to show off for the sake of impressing you, but rather keeping herself locked in on the emotions those vocal devices are best suited to deliver.

It’s rare to find someone whose strength of voice is equally impressive in both softer and louder projections. In other words someone with a lot of power who can really belt it will have no trouble rattling the speakers but when they quiet down for a more intimate passage they tend to lose the full, rich tones and the vibrant clarity of the notes in the process.

But not Hopkins, for as stunning as her more declarative vocals are on Doggin’ Blues (her voice during the bridge is so sharp and lethal that it will knock you on your ass) she no less amazing when she eases back without losing any of her intensity even as the volume AND the tonal qualities shift dramatically.

This record is equally effective as a lesson on HOW to sing as well as being a deterrent for any mere mortal hoping to sing even half as good as she can. Don’t bother trying, you’ll never come close to matching her.


Found A Note Layin’ On My Bed
In many ways this is a record that makes your head turn yet as a song it barely would get you to break stride.

A better way to put it is that Linda Hopkins is SO good she makes the song pale by comparison and you may be prone to think the record is perfect as a result.

It’s not. It’s very good, but she’s great and there’s a difference. Even her performance can stand a little more critiquing, such as the fact that after she sends you reeling during the first half there’s not as many highlights during the second half. Depending on your tolerance for drawn-out wordless moaning you might take issue with her using that technique as a way to unleash her full arsenal of vocal weaponry even if it does contain some relevant emotional baggage where the story is concerned.

In the end I think that’s what you wind up taking away from Doggin’ Blues more than anything – it was designed to provide an effective platform for Hopkins to show what she can do vocally and it works wonderfully for that purpose.

But take her away and put any other singer in her place and the song itself is not close to dazzling in its own regard. It’s fine… perfectly acceptable anyway… and tells and effective story in an efficient way, but how much would any of it really connect without those golden pipes of hers delivering it?

If we could give a perfect score for a single element of a record Linda Hopkins undoubtedly would be getting one for her performance, but a record is always the sum of its many parts and while nothing here fails to work by any means, what works best winds up working SO well that the gap between the singer and the song seems far bigger than it probably is.

But even so it’s still a rush just to listen to her cut loose and show any skeptics as to rock ‘n’ roll’s technical proficiency just what the human voice was capable of doing in this setting.


(Visit the Artist page of and Johnny Otis as well as Linda Hopkins for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)