If a long run on Broadway is the pinnacle of a career in show business, then Linda Hopkins has indeed tasted life at the top.
The New Orleans-born blues and gospel singer has worked the Great White Way four times, starting in 1970 with “Purlie,” in which she had a three-minute spot, to her co-starring role with Ruth Brown and Carrie Smith in “Black and Blue” from 1988 to 1991. In 1972, Hopkins won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her appearance in the Tom O’Horgan-directed show “Inner City.”
Still, as much as Hopkins cherishes the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd in a theater, she finds that these days the intimacy of a nightclub is more to her liking.
“I love working on Broadway, but you don’t know who you’re working for or, until the applause, whether they like you or not,” says the amazingly vigorous Hopkins, 66, speaking from her home in Hollywood, where she has lived since 1976.
“In a nightclub, the audience is with me,” Hopkins adds.
“I can get closer to the people. I can touch them, emotionally. And it’s my stage, just me and my band.” The singer will appear with her quartet from Tuesday through March 1 at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood.
Hopkins never intended to be in show business. Until she was 24, she had not set foot in a nightclub. Before that, she had made her living as a gospel artist, touring with the New Orleans-based, six-voice Southern Harp Spiritual Singers until she was 21, then leading a choir in a Richmond, Calif., church. When the pastor there made advances to her, and she rejected him--"He was a married man,” she says defiantly--she started singing blues and black pop material.
“My first tune was ‘Sixty-Minute Man,’ and I sang it in a club in Oakland owned by a man named Slim Jenkins,” Hopkins recalls. “Even though I was singing gospel and was listening to groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Five Blind Boys, I heard other kinds of music on the radio.”
Bessie Smith was one of those early and important influences. “I heard her as a child, and she stayed with me,” says Hopkins, who, with Will Holt, researched and wrote her one-woman show “Me and Bessie,” which ran on Broadway for 17 months in 1974 and 1975.
At Jenkins’ club, Hopkins had second billing to the great singer Helen Humes, who was renowned for her appearances with Count Basie.
Today, Hopkins’ program continues to draw on gospel and blues selections.
“They’re both the same kind of song, just with different words,” she says. “They’re both telling a story, and they can get you out of a bad situation. They can make a person feel good, feel happy about themselves when they might have been feeling depressed.”
Hopkins still sings in church, and invariably closes her shows with a gospel number--for example, her late mother’s favorite, “Amazing Grace.” The musician says she finds gospel music very inspirational. “It’s so clean and pure, it can make you feel beautiful inside. Gospel can also make you jump for joy.”
Joy and jump are two words that partially define a Hopkins performance. The self-trained singer--"It’s all natural, baby,” she says--never stands in one place too long and likes to make sure that the audience has as good a time as she does.
“I’ve always had this mischievous side to me, a side that wanted to be seen and heard,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of things. People used to laugh at the silly things I’d do, and that’s why I’ve never been nervous on stage.”
Hopkins feels that her outgoing nature came from the fact that she never knew her father--"I was born the day of his funeral"--and had to take care of her mother. “My beautiful mother was always sick, so I’d ask people if I could do their dishes for money.” She laughs. “Or ask them for a loan.” Hopkins’ mother died in 1946.
As a girl, Hopkins sang everywhere--"in the street, behind the ice cream man,” and, of course, in church, where she got her first big break when Mahalia Jackson heard her in 1936.
Jackson had grown up in Hopkins’ neighborhood, an area known as Zion City. Knowing that Jackson was coming to New Orleans to visit her parents, Hopkins, then 11, arranged for the star to sing at her church.
“She came to the church and walked up to me and said, ‘Baby, would you take me to whomever is sponsoring my program today?’ ” Hopkins says. “I told her it was me, and that I had her fee, which was $100. We charged 50 cents admission.”
Hopkins also opened the show. “I sang six songs, including her big hit, ‘God Shall Wipe All Tears Away,’ and after that she told one of the singers at the church, Alberta Johnson, to ‘take this girl and do something for her,’ ” Hopkins says. That something was to get her into the Southern Harp singers.
Successful in Hawaii and Japan in the early ‘50s, Hopkins moved to New York City in 1955 and worked mostly in nightclubs until she landed the spot in “Purlie,” which starred Cleavon Little and Melba Moore. In a twist of fate, it was Moore who understudied all three lead singers in “Black and Blue.”
“Purlie” led to “Inner City,” in which Hopkins captivated audiences with her rendition of “Deep in the Night,” which was preceded by a lengthy monologue. She says she still does the song and the introduction in her nightclub act.
The idea of doing a show based on Bessie Smith came about in the early ‘70s, when her manager at the time, Lee Apostaleris, told her, “The only way to go back on Broadway after winning the Tony is to headline, get your own show,” Hopkins says. So she combined her affection for Bessie Smith’s material with her own life story and came up with “Me and Bessie,” a show that consisted of 26 songs performed on a stage with two dancers and a single prop, “a big old trunk.” The show, backed by Columbia Records (whose cast album is out of print) ran a few months at the 1,200-seat Ambassador Theatre, then had to move to the smaller, 900-seat Edison. “Nobody thought it would be a hit,” she says.
Perhaps one reason the show did well was Hopkins’ empathy for Smith. “She used to say, ‘I ain’t Bessie but there’s a whole lot of Bessie in me,’ ” recalls Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, who saw the production and remains a Hopkins fan to this day. “Linda doesn’t try to imitate Bessie, but she gets a lot of her feeling. She’s a wonderful singer.”
Hopkins is exploring plans to revive the production.
Asked what all her success means to her, she pauses a moment and says, “What I do, I think, is for the memory of my mother. I would love to have had her seen me, and even though she’s not here I feel proud that I’m doing something for her. I thank God for allowing me to do this.”
Linda Hopkins appears at 9 and 11 p.m. Tuesday through March 1 at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Cover charge $12 Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, $15 Friday and Saturday. Two-drink minimum or dinner purchase required. Call (213) 466-2210.