Tony Award-winning actor Linda Hopkins has died at age 92.
The powerhouse gospel and blues singer who is known for embodying an earlier jazz giant, Bessie Smith, in the 1974 musical Me and Bessie, died April 10 at a care facility in Wisconsin of natural causes, family friend Lisa Love told Playbill. A masterful stylist in her own right, Hopkins kept the flame of 1920–40’s female jazz and blues giants alight for younger generations.
Born in New Orleans in 1924, the precocious singer went on the professional stage at age 11 as “Li’l Helen Matthews.“ She was discovered by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and spent most of her early life touring the South with various gospel groups, notably the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers. She got her first look at Smith, the performer who would play such an important role in her career, when she attended one of Smith's concerts in New Orleans in 1936. It was during this time that Hopkins absorbed firsthand the music she later would preserve and champion. In the 1950s she began to tour more widely and in 1951 changed her professional name to Linda Hopkins.
Under her new name Hopkins made her Apollo Theatre debut as her recording career was beginning to blossom. She had a hit single in 1963, “Shake a Hand,” with Jackie Wilson, which peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard R&B chart. Hopkins began performing in Bessie Smith’s style in 1959 with the touring revue Jazz Train, which toured Europe as Broadway Express. In the 1960s she spent time as a backup singer for Sammy Davis Jr. She also began studying acting professionally, which led to her Broadway debut in the 1970 musical Purlie, based on the play Purlie Victorious. Hopkins can be heard on the original cast album as the lead singer in the rousing, gospel-flavored opening number “Walk Him Up the Stairs.”
That featured performance led to a role in the 1972 musical Inner City, subtitled A Street Cantata, which ran only three months, but earned her the 1972 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Here is a 1979 clip of Hopkins singing “John Henry” and “Trouble,” the latter from Me and Bessie.
Over the next few years Hopkins worked with writer-director Will Holt to fashion a stage musical tribute to Bessie Smith, which she titled Me and Bessie. The show played around the U.S. before opening on Broadway in 1975, where it ran nearly 14 months and earned a Drama Desk nomination for Unique Theatrical Experience. The revue showcased Hopkins’ ability to incarnate Smith with performances of Smith standards such as “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” ”I Feel Good,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Jazzbo Brown,” “Preach Them Blues,” “After You've Gone,” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” At 453 performances, it remains one of the longest-running female solo shows in Broadway history.
She appeared as a singer in the 1979 miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, and played a rare non-singing role as TV chef Aunt Ethel in the 1991 TV broadcast of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum.
Hopkins earned her second Tony nomination, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical, in the 1989 revue, Black and Blue, and can be heard on the cast album once again singing “After You’ve Gone” and “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” plus “I’m a Woman,” the title track, and a medley of “Call It Stormy Monday” and “I’m Getting ’Long Alright.”
Hopkins assembled another revue, Wild Women Blues, which had a Berlin run in 1997 but never came to Broadway.
Though her film was limited mainly to small roles in films such as Disorderlies, Leprechaun 2, and Cries in the Dark, Hopkins was accorded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005 on the basis of her entire career on stage and in broadcast. Her final release was the concert DVD Deep in the Night in 2009, when she was 85.