Guitarist Milton Hopkins paid his dues on the road playing the blues, but his roots run deep in Hous
Milton Hopkins was sitting on his front porch in Trinity Gardens playing guitar when his fortunes changed nearly 70 years ago.
"This big beautiful car pulled up, I thought it was the police," Hopkins says, releasing a chesty laugh. Out stepped Don Robey, who Hopkins says, "looked like a white man, even though he was nowhere near an area where white folks should be." Robey, at the time, was expanding his nightclub business to a full-service music empire in which he oversaw a recording studio, a record label, nightclub and a booking agency. He'd heard about Hopkins, who had been playing around town with Otis Turner and Grady Gaines. Robey wanted to hire Hopkins to go on tour with burgeoning R&B stars Johnny Ace and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.
"I immediately got up and got a paper bag," Hopkins says. "I put in a pair of drawers, a T-shirt, shoes, my toothbrush, razor and grabbed my Silvertone guitar and amp. The rest is history."
That history would include decades of playing guitar with players like Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. He was on stage at City Auditorium on Christmas Day 1954, which Johnny Ace turned into one of the most dubious days in Houston music history. And, perhaps most notably, Hopkins spent nearly a decade with B.B. King, serving as rhythm guitarist and band leader.
At 84, Hopkins remains under-recorded as far as blues luminaries go. He played on '50s sessions for some of Robey's Duke/Peacock artists; and he can be heard on King's '70s recordings. But his first recording as a leader is only six years old, a collaboration with another Houston treasure, singer Jewel Brown, an under-documented artist herself.
But the sum of Hopkins' career extends beyond recordings, with two long runs playing blues, R&B and jazz around Houston. He's a venerable survivor - among the last of them - who has gigged steadily in the city since around 1980. Which makes him a perfect headliner for the Bayou City Music Series concert this Thursday at Discovery Green. Hopkins plays with Brown at a show that also includes rapper Bun B and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Jazz Ensemble.
It's a long way from that first tour for Robey, which put Hopkins at the foot of a sharp learning curve as he rode to Florida for a gig.
"Pepsi Cola," he says, laughing again. "We were headed to Pensacola. But the guys couldn't pronounce it."
After they arrived, Hopkins hit the stage and immediately found his gear lacking.
"I'd hit a note and it would go 'BLOOP,' " he says, his long, time-lined index finger tracing the note's path from eye level to the floor. "I thought it was a 'BANG,' but no. It was a 'BLOOP.' So they bought me this $50 amp from Austin. I could hardly lift it. And everything was OK then. I didn't know a whole lot. So it was an education for me. You learn on the job. It's a tough way, but the best way. It guarantees you don't forget anything. It means you keep the job."
Hopkins' tenure with B.B. King ended in the late-'70s. He left San Francisco, where he worked at the post office, and returned to Houston, where he drove a truck loaded with propane and butane tanks. Loading and unloading took a toll on his hands, and for two or three years he didn't play guitar.
His wife, Addie, suggested he pick it up again.
"I asked him, 'What is your plan for all this … stuff?' " she says, now. "What's it here for if you're not going to use it?"
"I had all these instruments sitting in a closet," he says. "What do I do with it? I realized, 'Hey, you play music, man.' I went back to playing. I've played ever since."
Hopkins found old friends and acquaintances from the '50s and regular gigs. The scene wasn't as he remembered it, and he feels it was diminished from its golden era. His eyes brighten talking about the old days.
"Houston was a place where the blues were a different ballgame," he says. "We made this real smooth, sophisticated blues. Where it was a raw, tree stump, corn whiskey party in Mississippi and Georgia and the rest of them. Houston found that really mellow, smooth blues. There was patience in it.
"I run into youngsters now, they play it so fast, you can't hardly see the damn thing. But what's going to hit you here?" he asks, tapping his heart. "Nothing."
Hopkins' entry into that world of smooth, sophisticated blues started with a piece of décor on the porch of his family's home. He recalls an old Stella guitar hanging from the wall from one of its strings for years. Nobody in the family played music. But he heard some neighbors playing impromptu jams and envisioned the guitar as a path somewhere different.
"I was maybe 14, and everybody was making progress and getting ready for the future," he says. "I was in a rut. So I thought it was something I could do."
He got started on the instrument, then worked his way up to the Silvertone, an old Sears catalog guitar. By the late-'40s he was playing with Otis Turner in the Harlem Music Makers, then later with saxophonist Grady Gaines' House Rockers.
His cousin Sam "Lightnin' " Hopkins - more than 20 years his elder - was making his own mark at the time with a rootsier play on the blues. But Hopkins' work put him in a different setting - nightclubs filled with well-dressed patrons.
He was 17 when Robey rolled up to his house that day. By 19 - with the new amp - he was backing Johnny Ace and "Big Mama" Thornton at the Apollo Theater in New York.
At every stage, Hopkins says he received advice, both musical and personal. He speaks reverently about Joe Scott, the producer, arranger and under-heralded genius of Duke/Peacock. He mentions Johnny "Guitar" Watson opening up opportunities for him on the West Coast. He even has kind words for Robey, whose reputation was intimidating and whose business acumen was ruthless.
Hopkins spent much of the '60s on the road with the Fabulous Upsetters, which put him on tour with all manner of R&B, soul, blues and pop artists.
He had crossed paths often with B.B. King in the '50s. Robey's brilliant business manager Evelyn Johnson served as the president of the Buffalo Booking Agency, which arranged his touring. In 1971, King and Hopkins met again, and Hopkins came away from the meeting with a job. King's '70s recordings offer the lion's share of recorded music featuring Hopkins. A Mississippi native who made his mark in Memphis, King is a fine example of the influence Houston had on blues nationwide. His band was a large ensemble, usually with brass, dressed to the nines, playing without haste. King repeatedly drew talent from Houston: trumpeter Calvin Owens worked with him in the '50s and then again from 1978 to 1984; trumpeter James Bolden worked with King from 1980 until King's death in 2015.
"With all those players, you had to keep organized," Hopkins says. "You had to have the music in notation so everybody could be together. The man had something." Avoid the hard stuff. Hopkins demythologizes much about the excesses of the music industry.
Touring is a soul-sucking grind. Or so he had been told.
"No," Hopkins says. "That is not true. What you hear about is the average musician on the road trying to make all the after-parties. He's going to have a woman in every town he plays. He's going to do all the things that have nothing to do with playing music. That's what they complain about. 'The road is hard.' No, the road is not hard. If you do what you're supposed to be doing, when you're supposed to be doing it, it's easy man."
Most of Hopkins' peers are gone. But he says he avoided drink and drugs. "My dad used to tell me no matter what, try to get one hot meal a day," he says. "I stuck with that." He hasn't just seen peers start to disappear as they get older.
Hopkins was part of Johnny Ace's backing band on Dec. 25, 1954. Ace was on the rise at the time, having topped the R&B charts two years earlier with "My Song" followed by several other hits - "Cross My Heart," "The Clock," "Saving My Love for You" among them.
Ace left the stage, and Thornton was about to begin her set with the same band. Backstage, the lore goes, Ace initiated a game of Russian Roulette. He lost. Hopkins was surprised, and yet, he wasn't. He says people in the venue thought Ace's death was a hoax.
"But he was always horse-assing around," he says. "He liked to wrestle - four, five guys at a time. He had knives and guns, he'd talk about your mama and (expletive). He was a nice guy, but he got a little too loose when he drank."
Ace was just 25. The next year, his "Pledging My Love" hit the pop charts at No. 17.
"I had good people who steered me in the right direction," Hopkins says. "Because then I didn't know for nothing. People helped me know where the line was."
Hopkins played regularly around Houston through the '80s, '90s and into the 2000s. If he felt like the Houston sound had dissipated upon his return, these days there's almost no trace of it.
"You get a blues band that plays all night," he says. "And you hear maybe three blues songs. The rest is rock 'n' roll."
But Hopkins remains a holdout. Eddie Stout, who runs the Austin-based Dialtone Records, wanted to record him.
"He's such an incredible player, but he doesn't sing," Stout says. So he paired Hopkins with Jewel Brown, who, like Hopkins, paid her dues in a Houston music scene that had little time for genre classifications. "They call me a jazzy blues singer," she says, "or a bluesy jazz singer."
"Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown," released in 2012, offered a rare opportunity to hear both as lead players on a recording.
In the office of Gulf Coast Entertainment, which books his gigs, Hopkins plucks away at a guitar for a few minutes. Eventually, the little clouds of notes start to form a song, the T-Bone Walker standard "Stormy Monday," about a week of woe that only breaks for payday Friday, a performance on Saturday and church on Sunday.
In Hopkins' hands, the song moves with a relaxed tempo that only underscores its mood.
Addie nods along. But her favorite song he plays - now, as well as then - is "Blues After Hours," which usually signaled the end of a long night.
"When they'd play that," she says, "everybody knew it was time to go home."