Linda Hopkins, a Tony Award-winning singer and actress, who brought a full-throated, gospel-driven spirit to her concert performances and long-running Broadway musical shows, died April 10 in Milwaukee. She was 92.
Her death was announced on the website of the New Pitts Mortuary in Milwaukee, where Hopkins had lived in recent years. She had a severe stroke 10 years ago.
Hopkins began performing as a gospel singer in her native New Orleans at age 3, standing on a box to be heard in church. She emulated two singers with huge voices, gospel star Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Smith, known as the Empress of the Blues.
Both strains of music — the divine and the devilish — shaped Hopkins’s style and appeal throughout her long career. At age 11, the same year she began singing in a traveling gospel group, Hopkins saw Smith perform and never forgot it.
“This was a year or two before she died,” Hopkins told music writer Leonard Feather in 1975. “But when I heard ‘Empty Bed Blues’ and watched those fringes moving as she swayed on that stage, I sat right up in my seat and said to myself, that’s it.”
After years performing as a gospel singer, Hopkins began to sing blues and jazz in the 1950s. She also turned to acting, first appearing on Broadway in 1970 in “Purlie,” a musical derived from a play by Ossie Davis and set in the Jim Crow South.
In 1972, Hopkins won a Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for her performance in “Inner City,” a retelling of classic fairy tales in an urban setting. The play, which starred Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, may not have been a success, but Hopkins certainly was.
“So far as I’m concerned,” New York Times critic Walter Kerr wrote, “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 … Her desperation is controlled, solemn, honest; she never presses an inch beyond what she truly means; she pauses to listen for wavelengths that will tell the God’s truth.”
In the mid-1970s, Hopkins returned to one of her early inspirations as the co-writer of “Me and Bessie,” a staged tribute to Smith. The production, written with Will Holt, was a one-woman show — except for a pair of dancers — that featured Hopkins’s monologues and performances of 26 songs associated with Smith.
After its premiere in Washington and later performances in Los Angeles, “Me and Bessie” landed on Broadway in 1975. It ran for more than a year, with critics mesmerized by Hopkins’s renditions of such 1920s classics as “Empty Bed Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
“There is plenty of muscle behind Hopkins’ voice,” critic Joan Downs wrote in Time magazine, “both physical and emotional. Throaty with raw gospel power, it is a hand-clapping, hip-slapping sound, a miracle in sheer lustiness.”
Hopkins had a number of film and TV roles in the 1970s and 1980s before returning to Broadway in 1989 with “Black and Blue,” a musical revue about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s in which she was featured along with singers Ruth Brown and Carrie Smith.
The show was a box-office hit, running for 829 performances over a two-year period. Hopkins was nominated for a Tony Award for best actress in a musical and later reprised her role in Europe.
In 1997, she helped develop another musical program for the stage, “Wild Women Blues,” celebrating the artistry of Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. She spent three years on tour in Europe before the show debuted in the United States.
Melinda Helen Matthews was born Dec. 14, 1924, in New Orleans. She did not know her father, a minister, she said, because “I was born the day of his funeral.” Her mother was a housemaid.
Hopkins was 11 when she persuaded gospel star Mahalia Jackson to appear at her New Orleans church, collecting donations from the congregation.
“She came to the church,” Hopkins told the Los Angeles Times in 1992, “and walked up to me and said, ‘Baby, would you take me to whoever is sponsoring my program today?’ I told her it was me, and that I had her fee, which was $100. We charged 50 cents admission.”
Impressed by the young girl’s powerful singing, Jackson arranged for Hopkins to join the Southern Harps gospel group. After touring the country for 11 years, she settled in Oakland, California, where she began to perform secular music in nightclubs and recorded with rhythm-and-blues stars Johnny Otis and “Little” Esther Phillips. It was Phillips who suggested that she change her stage name from Helen Matthews to Linda Hopkins.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Hopkins recorded several albums, performed extensively in Hawaii and Japan and shared the stage with such acclaimed performers as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Little Richard.
“I call my style versatile,” she told The New York Times in 1989. “Although I come from a gospel background, to me gospel and blues are the same music but with different words. Both make me happy when I sing them.”
Hopkins’s recordings included “How Blue Can You Get” (1982), “Here’s the Kid” (1994) and “The Living Legend Live!” (2006). She frequently appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and made concert appearances with the show’s bandleader, Doc Severinsen, and blues stars B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Hopkins maintained a busy performing schedule until she had a stroke at 82. She had no immediate survivors.
Regardless of the style of music she performed, Hopkins said, “I never let myself forget that I’m a gospel singer. A gospel singer is someone that sings the spirit within them.”