For a guy who traveled the world playing gigs as the guitarist and bandleader for B.B. King, Milton Hopkins never gave the impression he was a man in a hurry. In conversation, he was always measured and exact. His guitar playing, too, was economical, stylish and distinctive.
Hopkins practiced that patience with scores of other musicians on countless stages over decades. The Houston blues legend died Saturday after a short illness. He was 88.
Despite his standing in Houston, Hopkins found his way to the blues later than many guitar greats. He was 14 or 15 when he took notice of the Stella guitar hanging on the porch of his family’s home, a decoration more than an instrument. Hopkins said he had five siblings, so college was off the table. To that point, he hadn’t envisioned any future vocation for himself. So he took the guitar down, strung it, and taught himself to play.
He started playing with Otis Turner’s band around age 16. He later hooked up with Grady Gaines’ House Rockers. Word got around about his playing, thus Hopkins drew the notice of Don Robey, the Houston music magnate, who hired him at age 17.
Hopkins said he didn’t have a suitcase, so he filled a paper bag with his clothes and his shaving kit and grabbed his guitar and amplifier. “I learned on the job,” he said.
In Houston, he found himself around the studio playing with the brilliant arranger Joe Scott, making recordings with Robey’s artists on the Duke and Peacock labels. Hopkins was just 19 when Robey sent him to the Apollo Theater in New York, where he played guitar for Ace and “Big Mama” Thornton. The 1960s found Hopkins frequently touring with Gaines’ Fabulous Upsetters, which put him on stages with artists like Little Richard and Sam Cooke. In 1971, he got hired by B.B. King, whose ’70s recordings featured Hopkins, who also served as bandleader.