A fiery blues and gospel belter of the highest order, Linda Hopkins was born Melinda Helen Matthews in New Orleans, La.
She was discovered by singer Mahalia Jackson and started her career as a touring gospel vocalist with the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers in 1936. Hopkins was inspired by the great Bessie Smith at a young age after seeing the “Empress of the Blues” in concert. A self-taught vocalist, Hopkins continued to perform with the Singers until she was 21, but eventually left New Orleans for Northern California. She led a choir in Richmond, Calif., before starting a career singing blues, R&B and jazz at the Slim Jenkins Night Club in Oakland.
After performing with the likes of Johnny Otis and Count Basie collaborator Helen Humes at the Oakland club, Hopkins eventually moved to New York City and recorded her lone hit single, “Shake a Hand,” with Jackie Wilson in 1963. The song reached No. 21 on the R&B charts. Years later, Hopkins began a run of appearances on Broadway that began with a brief appearance in Ossie Davis’ “Purlie” in 1970. Hopkins won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical in 1972 for her role in “Inner City.” In 1974, she starred in the one-woman show “Me and Bessie,” a 26-song musical revue combining the life and career of Smith with her own, that ran for 17 months.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1976, Hopkins continued to perform in clubs and theaters for the next two decades, including a Tony-nominated role in the 1989 musical “Black and Blue” and “Wild Women Blues,” a musical that opened in Berlin in 1997. Though her recorded output is relatively small compared with many of her contemporaries, Hopkins continued to perform her blend of blues, showtunes and gospel into her 80s, releasing “The Living Legend Live!” in 2006 and the live DVD “Deep in the Night” in 2009.