Long John Hunter had a gig the day after he picked up a guitar. No shit. One minute he's working at a Beaumont box factory and reluctantly on his way to see B.B. King at the Raven Club at the insistence of some fellow workers; two days later, he's a born-again bluesman up on a stage with two other guys who were "half-musicians" making $2.50. The man thought he had gone to "cotton heaven," the year being 1953 and two dollars and change being a decent take, especially for a guy who had never before played the instrument, any instrument.
Now, 43 years after that first gig and the B.B. King performance that convinced him to pick up the instrument he had never once thought about before that night, Long John Hunter does not recall what he played that night, or even how. As best he can remember, he merely stood on that stage and played "sounds I liked," understanding even as a young man of 22 that music was more about feeling than notes.
He plucked and prodded the tight new strings, begged them to make the sounds he heard in his head but never tried to get out through his fingers. That was a long time ago, though, and Hunter now figures, "If I had to remember how those songs went, it'd probably take me a lifetime. I didn't know what I was doing. Whatever tune I was in, I liked it."
Hunter, a man who plays guitar with equal parts fury and delight, now speaks from his home in Odessa--out in the middle of nowhere, where he's been all his life, whether he was standing in the cotton fields of Arkansas or playing his trademarked blues in Mexico. He's a Texas blues guitarist whose name isn't even whispered when folks speak of the greats, or even the plain old goods. Hunter's too unknown for that, his records being the kind only collectors own and fanatics play. You couldn't even call the release of his first widely distributed record, Border Town Legend, on the Chicago-based Alligator Records, a comeback. You can't come back when you weren't here in the first place.
A year after he first picked up the guitar, Long John Hunter--a man born in Louisiana, raised in Arkansas, and now forever stuck in Texas--released a single on the Houston-based Duke Records, the now-legendary label run by the equally infamous and iron-fisted Don Robey. Titled "Crazy Baby"/"She Used to Be My Woman," the record placed Hunter on a roster that included such Texas music immortals as Big Mama Thornton (the original voice of "Hound Dog"), O.V. Wright, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace. To be on Duke or Robey's other label, Peacock, was a mark of honor among the Lone Star R&B artists of the day.
It was no such mark for Hunter, however. To this day he insists Robey signed him up just to shut him up, to keep him from competing with Robey's franchise players. "Crazy Baby" was on its way to becoming a regional hit when Robey picked it up from Hunter, but by the time Robey re-released it on his own label, months after it was beginning to make headway, the song was dead--and so was Hunter's career in Houston.
"Robey had a lot invested in Bobby Bland," Hunter recalls of his brief tenure with Duke. "I figured out what happened only after people told me it didn't cost him nothin' to sign me. I was green and didn't know nothing 'bout the business, so he signed me and put the record in his vaults and sat on it. I was running competition, and a good record was scarce and few. After that, I didn't do anything with Robey, and for a year and a half I fought with him for release from my contract. He finally let me go. I guess he figured, 'I had him tied up long enough, and he's dead, anyway.'"
Hunter tried to keep playing in Houston, and he succeeded for a while. He backed up the likes of Thornton, a young Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Little Milton, and other would-be myths and heroes. By 1957, he had had enough of Houston and headed west, at a friend's suggestion, for El Paso and points south.
There, Long John Hunter performed in a vacuum--in a rundown roadhouse called the Lobby Bar located in the heart of the dusty border town of Juarez, El Paso's Mexican neighbor just across the bridge. Hunter would play for those who crossed the border at night in search of a quick, cheap good time; he provided the soundtrack to barroom brawls and drunken revelries, a black man among Mexicans and white college students and assorted other itinerants shitfaced on buckets of beer. Hunter, who used to entertain his audiences by literally dangling himself from the ceiling as he played like a bluesman piata, likes to say that if there weren't at least 10 fights at the Lobby Bar, it was a slow night.
"If it didn't happen at the Lobby Bar," he says, "it didn't happen anywhere in the world."
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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Finally, after a few rave notices in a couple rock magazines, Hunter got signed to Alligator and now has a real record to bear witness to the legend often talked about but never heard. Border Town Legend lives up to the man who generates a myriad of myths: It's a travelogue of Hunter's eccentric life--the barrooms of Beaumont, the sparkling lights of Marfa, and the fields of Arkansas--set to a boogie-blues beat.
Border comes complete with an enormous horn section and a guitar sound that is, yes, reminiscent of B.B. King's, but without the pristine restraint that makes King a favorite of the bourgeoisie. Performing a selection of songs he wrote or co-wrote with Tary Owens and co-producer Jon Foose, Hunter's a madman on the instrument, still more concerned with feeling than technical prowess.
Four decades after his first single got buried by Don Robey, Long John Hunter has a bona fide deal with a solvent record company, and the result is a damn fine Texas blues record. If it doesn't make him a legend, that's fine with Hunter. Being a legend don't put food on the table, and being a legend don't always mean you're gonna find work four nights out of every seven.
Long John Hunter performs February 17 at J&J's Blues Bar in Fort Worth.