Linda Hopkins, a Tony-Winning Actress and Singer, Dies at 92
by William Grimes, New York Times 4/11/2017
Linda Hopkins, whose soaring, gospel-rooted voice was heard on Broadway in the 1970s in “Inner City” and the one-woman show “Me and Bessie,” and in the 1980s in the long-running revue “Black and Blue,” died on Monday in Milwaukee. She was 92.
The death was confirmed by her great-niece Hazel Lindsey.
Ms. Hopkins had been performing gospel, blues and rhythm and blues for more than 40 years when she took the stage in “Inner City,” a musical based on a book of urban Mother Goose tales by Eve Merriam. The show had a short run, but Ms. Hopkins’s rendition of “Deep in the Night” and other songs made a lasting impression.
“So far as I’m concerned,” the critic Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times, “they can throw away the rest of ‘Inner City’ and just let a lady named Linda Hopkins stand there all night, tapping one foot slightly, opening her composed mouth to let miraculous sounds come out of it, reaching out her arms to the balcony as though to complete its curve and make the world come full circle, shaking her head very slightly in deep private worry as she stalks to the portals, done with a song. She is magnificent.”
In 1972, Ms. Hopkins received the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actress in a musical.
With Will Holt, she conceived and wrote “Me and Bessie,” a tribute to the great blues singer Bessie Smith, whose songs she had been performing for years. With spare accompaniment, she held the stage for an entire evening, performing more than 20 of Smith’s songs and summoning the events of her life.
The show, which opened at the Ambassador Theater in October 1975, ran for 453 performances. It was the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history up to that time.
Ms. Hopkins returned to Broadway in 1989 in “Black and Blue,” joining with the blues singers Ruth Brown and Carrie Smith to evoke the glory years of the Harlem nightspot the Cotton Club in the 1920s and ’30s. She was nominated for a Tony for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical, but she lost to Ms. Brown, her co-star.
Ms. Hopkins was born Melinda Helen Matthews on Dec. 14, 1924, in New Orleans. Her father, Fred, who died just before her birth, was a deacon at St. Mark’s Baptist Church, and her mother, the former Hazel Smith, was a housemaid.
Standing on a Coca-Cola crate, Helen, as she was known, began singing with the church choir at 3 and quickly became a star attraction. At 11, she impudently called the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and invited her to perform at a fund-raiser for the children’s choir.
Ms. Jackson, unaware that she was speaking to a young girl, agreed. On the day of the fund-raiser, she was rewarded when Helen gave a full-throated rendition of “God Shall Wipe Your Tears Away,” one of Ms. Jackson’s best-known songs.
Impressed, Ms. Jackson arranged for Helen to join the Southern Harps , an all-women gospel group in New Orleans. Singing first tenor, Helen performed with the group for 11 years and recorded several songs with them for King Records in 1947.
After moving to Oakland, Calif., in 1950, she directed choirs at Bay Area churches. One day, acting on a tip, she turned up to audition for a singing competition at a popular nightclub. “I auditioned, but the contest never came off because when Slim Jenkins heard me, he hired me,” Ms. Hopkins told The New York Times in 1976, referring to the man who ran the club.
By then, she had expanded her range to include the blues, after experiencing a kind of epiphany some years earlier when she heard Bessie Smith perform at the Palace Theater in New Orleans.
“She wasn’t a big star no more — this was a year or two before she died — but when I heard ‘Empty Bed Blues’ and watched those fringes moving as she swayed on that stage,” she told Leonard Feather, the jazz critic for The Los Angeles Times, in 1975, “I sat right up in my seat and said to myself, that’s it.”
Eight years later, Mr. Feather produced Ms. Hopkins’s album “How Blue Can You Get?”
Little Esther Phillips, a teenage vocalist with the Johnny Otis Orchestra who was preparing to start a solo career, heard Ms. Hopkins’s nightclub act and did her two favors. She recommended that she join Mr. Otis as her replacement, and she came up with the stage name Linda Hopkins.
Ms. Hopkins made several blues recordings with Mr. Otis on the Savoy label before interpreting Bessie Smith songs in “The Jazz Train,” a historical revue staged in the United States and Europe. Throughout the 1950s, she recorded R&B songs for several labels; “Shake a Hand,” a duet with Jackie Wilson on Brunswick, was a hit.
She made her Broadway debut in 1970 in “Purlie,” with Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, and made the most of her brief moment onstage in the first act. Her showstopping performance of “Walk Him Up the Stairs,” a gospel solo with choir, paved the way for her Broadway career.
She appeared in several films, including “The Education of Sonny Carson” (1974) and the Clint Eastwood film “Honkytonk Man” (1982), in which she sang “When the Blues Come Around This Evening.” On television, she was seen in “Roots: The Next Generation” (1979).
Ms. Hopkins, who leaves no other immediate survivors, maintained a busy career, often appearing at Sweetwater’s in Manhattan, until a stroke sidelined her at 82. The voice stayed strong.
“I only sing songs where you can give vent to your feelings,” she told The Times in 1976. “When you’re singing an anthem or hymns, you might cry or something, but that’s all you’re going to do. But when you’re singing a gospel, giving that gospel beat, Christians can get up and dance, because there’s dancing in heaven.”
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