Often overlooked by historians, Claude Hopkins was a major contributor to the development of early jazz and swing music. He was an incredibly gentle yet powerful stride pianist who could perform both ballads and hot numbers with equal virtuosity. Hopkins also wrote and arranged many compositions of his own and in collaboration with other artists like J.C. Johnson and Bud Freeman.
Hopkins grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and learned to play piano at age seven. He studied music and medicine at Howard University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree, and later attended the Washington Conservatory. He worked with several bands while in college and formed his own group in 1924 for an engagement in Atlantic City, after which he spent a brief period with Wilbur Sweatman before forming another group of his own.
In September of 1925 Hopkins traveled to Europe, where he became Josephine Baker's musical director, touring Europe with her revue. He then led his own band in Italy and Spain in 1926 before returning to the states in the spring of that year. He worked with several groups of his own until taking over Charlie Skeete's orchestra in 1930. Hopkins band was a regular performer at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930, the Roseland Ballroom from 1931 to 1935, and the Cotton Club in 1935 and 1936.
Hopkins recorded often during the early and mid-1930s but was silent from 1937 to late 1939, when he led the band on extensive tours. He entered the studio again in early 1940 for the AMMOR label. Vocalists for the band were Orlando Roberson, who was known for hitting the high notes, and trumpeter Ovie Alston. Standout musicians included clarinetist Ed Hall, trumpeter Jabbo Smith, saxophonist Bobby Sands, trombonists Vic Dickenson and Fernando Arbello. In the late 1930s Hopkins occasionally fronted the band, allowing other pianists to take his instrument.
In 1941 Hopkins reorganized the orchestra before disbanding it in late 1942. He led his own small groups for the next two years and also worked at the Eastern Aircraft factory in New Jersey. In 1944 Hopkins formed a new orchestra which lasted, in one form or another, until 1947. It did not record. He continued working with smaller groups throughout the 1940s and 1950s, appearing with Red Allen and Herman Autrey in the late 1950s and Sol Yaged in 1960. He led his own group again from 1960 to 1966 and played with Wild Bill Davidson's Jazz Giants in the late 1960s and Roy Eldridge in 1970. Hopkins mostly worked as a soloist in the latter part of his life, performing and recording up through the 1970s. Claude Hopkins passed away in 1984.