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.