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Linda Hopkins

Linda Hopkins

Linda Hopkins (b. New Orleans, LA, 14 December 1924) is an African-American Blues and Gospel singer who has also had considerable success as an actress on stage and screen.

The fifth of six children born to the Reverend Fred Matthews, Sr., and Hazel Smith, Helen Melinda Matthews grew up in the “Zion City” section of New Orleans. Singing solo from the age of three, “Lil Helen” was a prominent member of the choir of her father’s church, St. Mark’s Baptist, and in 1936 she managed to persuade the great Mahalia Jackson – over the telephone – to participate in a church fundraiser. At the event, Jackson (who was then 25) was surprised to find that her “impresario” was only eleven, and even more astonished to hear one of her most popular Gospel songs, “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away,” sung by the same little girl by way of an introduction. Mahalia Jackson was deeply moved by Lil Helen’s talent and dedication, and promptly dubbed her “The Kid,” a nickname that has stuck to Linda Hopkins (as she later became) ever since, even into her ninth decade.

Jackson arranged for the girl to join the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers, a group with which she would sing “first tenor” for eleven years, and with which she would make her first recordings (on four 78s) in 1947. But Helen Mathews was not to follow precisely in Mahalia Jackson’s footsteps. Whereas Jackson was committed exclusively to Gospel music, “the music of the Lord,” all her life, Linda Hopkins was drawn to the Blues, “the music of the Devil,” to an equal degree. She had first heard Bessie Smith in 1936 at the New Orleans Palace Theatre, and had realized that secular music could be just as compelling as Gospel; both came from deep in the human heart.

In 1951 Helen Matthews left New Orleans and headed for the West Coast, taking a solo gig at Slim Jenkins’s Night Club in the Oakland area. A thirteen-year-old jazz and Blues singer, “Little Esther” Phillips, made friends with her there and introduced her to bandleader Johnny Otis. It turned out that Little Esther was hoping for a star career with King Records and needed a substitute in Otis’s revue. Not only did Esther recommend her new friend for the position, she gave Helen Mathews her new stage name: Linda Hopkins. That year Linda made her first Blues recordings for Savoy Records in Los Angeles – four singles, including two hits, “Doggin’ Blues” and “Warning Blues” – with the Johnny Otis Orchestra, and two more in San Francisco with Fletcher Smith.

In 1952 Hopkins went on tour to the Hawaiian Islands, where she appeared at The Brown Derby in Honolulu with Louis Armstrong. The club’s owner booked her for a six-week stint at a club in Japan; she was so successful and happy there that she stayed for two years. She might have stayed for good if she hadn’t missed her family and friends, and still reminisces occasionally by singing rock-’n’-roll songs in Japanese. Returning to the States, she recorded for the Crystalette, Forecast, Federal, and Atco labels, and often appeared at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem (once with Little Richard). With several other rock and Blues stars, she participated in the 1956 film Rockin’ the Blues, and toured the US extensively with the Rock-’n’-Roll Cavalcade.

Linda Hopkins worked with the comedy team Allen and Rossi in major nightclubs in the late ’50s, but an automobile accident forced her to give up performing for an entire year.

The Jazz Train: A Musical Dedicated to the Negro People had its beginnings in a New York cabaret, and was exported as Broadway Express to London’s Picadilly Theatre in 1955, starring Bertice Reading impersonating Bessie Smith. (Smith had died in 1937, only a year after “Lil Helen” had heard her at the Palace.) After recovering from her accident, Linda Hopkins joined the cast as Bessie Smith in Europe in 1960, and found, as did many black performers from the US, an eager audience and a welcoming environment. While in Switzerland she recorded a dozen songs for the Basel-based label Ex Libris. The album was simply titled Linda Hopkins.

Back home, she hooked up again with Marty Allen and Steve Rossi to play the Catskills, and toured the Playboy circuit. She signed and spent several years with the Brunswick label, recording “Shake a Hand” in duet with Jackie Wilson in 1963. The single made it up to position 21 on the Rhythm & Blues charts. It was to be, technically, the only charted hit of her career.

While in New York between tours, Linda Hopkins attended Stella Adler’s Acting School to “brush up her talent” after her experience in Jazz Train and Broadway Express. Adler, said Hopkins later, “told me I would never be an actress; she said for me to just be myself.” Nevertheless, acting school must have had some beneficial effect, for Linda Hopkins was featured on Broadway in 1970 as the Church Soloist, singing “Walk Him Up the Stairs,” in Purlie, starring Cleavon Little. This triumph was followed by the lead role in Inner City, the controversial revue created by Tom O’Horgan, with lyrics by Eve Merriam and music by Helen Miller (the first Broadway show, incidentally, by a two-woman songwriting team). For her powerful performance Linda Hopkins received a Tony Award® and a Drama Desk Award. She was invited several times to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and finally was able to record an entire LP disc under her own name in the United States.

Linda Hopkins was at last in a position to realize one of her most cherished dreams: dedicating a full-evening one-woman show to the great Bessie Smith. Will Holt collaborated with her on the concept and the book, and Me and Bessie was first staged in Washington, DC, in 1974. It moved to Los Angeles and on to Broadway, opening October 22, 1975, at the Ambassador Theatre for a planned six-week run, but it was so popular that it had to be extended and moved to the Edison Theatre. In all, Me and Bessie lasted for 453 Broadway performances, an extraordinary record for a solo performer and unmatched for the next 28 years. Hopkins was nominated in 1976 for a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, and an original cast album was released on the Columbia label.

Meanwhile, Hopkins had established her acting skills and was embarked upon a substantial career in films for both the large and small screens; many of her roles were Blues singers. She was Lil Boy’s Mother in The Education off Sonny Carson (1974), she sang in Roots, The Next Generation (1979) on television and in Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man (1982). She played purely comic roles in Disorderlies (1987) and Leprechaun 2 (1994). Other musical movies made for television included Mitzi … Roarin’ in the 20’s (in which she again impersonated Bessie Smith, 1976), Purlie (1981), and Go Tell It on the Mountain (1985).

Hopkins sang at Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Ball in 1977 and toured for nine months with Sammy Davis, Jr., but did not return to Broadway until 1989, in Black and Blue. This musical revue, an homage to the Blues and Jazz of the glamorous Harlem Cotton Club, was written by Argentine Parisians Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, and had its 1985 premiere in Paris at The Théâtre Musical. It came to the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway in January 1989 and ran for 829 performances. Hopkins received a nomination for a Tony Award® for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical, and in 1995 she was back in Europe with the show, touring for two years.

She continued to make recordings, both in Europe and the US: the original cast album of Black and Blue in 1990, singing with Branford Marsalis on his album I Heard You Twice the First Time (1992) and with Jackie Wilson on Reet Petite (1993), and a solo album Here’s the Kid (1994) recorded in Holland. The 1995 Quicksilver release, How Blue Can You Get, was a reissue of a 1982 recording produced by Leonard Feather and made in California.

Linda Hopkins joined with Maxine Weldon and Mortonette Jenkins in Berlin in December 1997 in the premiere of Wild Women Blues, conceived by Hopkins and produced by Mel Howard. This revue was a tribute to the Lady Blues singers Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. It has played all the great cities of Germany, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Ljubljana, Monte Carlo, and a few cities in the US, but still has not made it to Broadway. The cast album was recorded in Germany in 1999 by Ais Productions.

In 2005 Linda Hopkins received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She is the subject of a published PhD dissertation, Motherin’ The Blues: Linda Hopkins – The Continuing Legacy of the Blues Woman, by Erany Barrow-Pryor (2005).

– Lucy E. Cross