Obituaries

Linda Hopkins, 92; blues singer won Tony for best actress

Jazz and blues singer Linda Hopkins performs during a ceremony unveiling a new postage stamp honoring Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role in "Gone With the Wind," Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006, at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif. McDaniel becomes the 29th honoree in the U.S. Postal Service?s Black Heritage series. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE/2006
Ms. Hopkins performed during a ceremony unveiling a postage stamp honoring actress Hattie McDaniel.

NEW YORK — 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 Monday in Milwaukee. She was 92.

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,” 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.”

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In 1972, Ms. Hopkins received the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actress in a musical.

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For her next Broadway project, she followed the model suggested by Kerr. 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, Ms. Hopkins 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 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 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, which she lost to Brown.

Ms. Hopkins was born Melinda Helen Matthews in New Orleans. Her father, Fred, who died before her birth, was a deacon at a Baptist church, and her mother, the former Hazel Smith, was a housemaid.

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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.

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 Jackson’s best-known songs.

Impressed, 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.

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“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, 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 Hopkins’s nightclub act and did her two favors. She recommended that she join Otis as her replacement, and she came up with the stage name Linda Hopkins.

Ms. Hopkins made several blues recordings with 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, 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 show-stopping 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 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 maintained a busy career until a stroke sidelined her at 82. The voice stayed strong.

“I only sing songs where you can give vent to your feelings,” she said 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.”