Lonely Hunter

After a self-imposed exile in Mexico and obscurity, a Texas bluesman comes home

For more than a decade, from 1957 to early 1970, Hunter made the Lobby Bar his home. "I started on a Monday and worked there 13 long years," Hunter recalls. "For five years straight, I worked from 8 at night to say-when the next day."

Hunter eschewed the touring circuit, where most of the other journeymen blues players of his generation made their meager livings, and opted to stay in a place that guaranteed him steady work (seven nights a week, never a night off), a relatively hefty paycheck, a place to live, even bodyguards to protect him from the rowdy clientele. Hunter was the true outlaw musician living in self-imposed exile.

When people speak of the Texas guitar blues greats of Hunter's era--men like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Albert Collins and Lonnie Brooks--they don't mention Long John Hunter, only because he made his music outside of earshot for so much of his life. Conversely, he wasn't influenced by many of his peers. He wanted to sound like B.B. King and only B.B. King for a long time--that is, until he realized he sounded like Long John Hunter and liked that a hell of a lot better.

"I liked the way [Collins and Brown] played when I heard them, but by this time I was already in my mode of doing my own thing," Hunter says. "I just wanted to be Long John. After I got the B.B. King out of my system--and I still play a few B.B. licks every now and then--I wanted to sound like Long John.

"After playing a while, I just copied my own way of playing, and it worked real well, and I thought, 'Why stop if it's working?' I'm sure I was uncorrect on a lot of tunes--I mean, I was playing fast and all--but I think my style went with my looks."

Legend has it Hunter made his impact from the other side of the border. It is said among those who say such things that El Paso's favorite son, Bobby Fuller, who became immortal with "I Fought the Law," would stop in and catch Hunter playing his brand of bawdy party blues, which included songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Hunter's own "raggedy" originals. Hunter even recalls meeting Fuller three or four times. "He would come to the Lobby and just give me a handshake or something," Hunter says, "but my music and his music was so far apart."

Hunter also recalls another patron who would stop into the Lobby every now and then--a young white kid with thick spectacles and a baby face named Buddy Holly. As Hunter recalls it, Holly once approached Hunter after a set and shook his hand, telling the bluesman he was a fan and that perhaps they'd meet again on the road or back at the Lobby after Holly returned from his tour.

"I thought this guy was just jivin', and it turned out he was a big wheel," Hunter recalls. "To me, he was just someone else in the crowd." Not long after that, Hunter heard a few Holly records on the radio and recalled their meeting; then, on February 3, 1959, Holly died in a place crash. Since then, legend also has it, Hunter has been a big influence on ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. Then again, who hasn't?

During his stay in Mexico, Hunter put together his own band by hiring two Lobby Bar bartenders who spoke no English and had no prior musical experience. A day and a half into rehearsals, Hunter put them to work. They remained his sidemen until he left Juarez, even recording with him on sides he cut for the forsaken Yucca Records label in the early 1960s. (The sides have since shown up on a Dutch import CD called Texas Border Town Blues.)

"They were interested in how to play rock and roll, and I snatched them from around the bar," Hunter says of his proteges. "They could sing and play American music and couldn't speak no English. That was a funny thing to me."

In 1970, Hunter moved on to the King's X in El Paso and then headed for Midland and Odessa, where he finally settled. He hit the tour circuit for a while, made a record in 1985 for another label that disappeared into the West Texas sand, then re-recorded the Yucca sides for a 1992 record, Ride with Me (produced by old Roky Erickson crony Tary Owens). That album was released on the Spindletop label, which folded just as Ride with Me was being released.

Hunter had the luck of a blind man running naked through a cactus patch, "but I kept playing the blues," he says now. "To me, anything was better than plowing that mule, so I figured if I could keep playing--even though it was hard and I wasn't making much money--it was better than plowing that mule or picking that cotton like I had done in Arkansas. I was always lucky I had a little work. It wasn't like I was starving to death. If I had two, three, four days of work, I felt like I was doing all right."

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