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Long John Hunter

 

Chicago Blues Festival 1996. Photo by Peter Widmer.

 

A Happy Blues Player

 

Long John Hunter really came to the attention of the general public with the release of his Alligator Records debut-cd, Border Town Legend, in 1996. However, said CD was not Hunter's first musical calling card. Hunter, born in 1931, recorded a single on Duke Records - Crazy Baby b/w She Used to Be My Woman - in 1954, but fame did not arrive with that product. Nevertheless, Hunter was never out of a job as a musician. And he consolidated his reputation as a sparkling "live act" at the Lobby Bar i Juarez, Mexico, on the other side of the American-Mexican border in the vicinity of El Paso. Hunter played there for a total of ten years, and gradually became a veritable "border town legend".
Through the years Long John Hunter has recorded sporadically and in 1985 the guitarist and vocalist recorded an LP for the Boss label. 1992 saw the release of the much sought-after Spindletop album Ride With Me (soon to be re-released on Allligator Records), but the portals of fame never opened till 1996. Since then, Hunter and his band The Walking Catfish have made quite a name for themselves, and with his latest CD, Swinging From The Rafters, Hunter has cemented his well-earned reputation as a grand exponent of Texas blues with his very special playing style inspired by B. B. King and with a nod to Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown.

 


A long man

 

Texas blues guitarist and vocalist Long John Hunter is a long man; in the sense that he is a very tall man, and an imposing figure both off and on a stage. The man has a compelling stage presence, and he and his band The Walking Catfish command any collective live platform very well. This writer has fond memories of Long John Hunter and The Walking Catfish playing a strong acoustic set at the Juke Joint Stage and delivering an electric and electrifying concert later that same day to a very enthusiastic crowd at the Chicago Blues Festival 1996. I also had the fortune to see Hunter recently on home turf, when he visited this year's Odense Blues Festival in May.

 

The following article draws from conversations I had with Hunter at both festivals. In Chicago we were accompanied by Hunter's manager Steve Jeter, who sometimes felt compelled to speak on behalf of the modest Hunter:

 

You have been described as "…a true innovator of Texas blues", and your style has been referred to as containing elements of Zydeco and even Rhumba.
- Well, I don't know how they define that. But they have this Texas blues thing blown kinda out of proportion. I am a Long John Hunter blues, before and after, that's what I am. I just play to good people; they seem to like what I do, and the more they like it, the more I play. I developed my style by pickin' a lot of cotton, plowin' that ole mule every day. I just got the rhythm, and any rhythm I need I know where it is; I know where to find it. I came from the country, and when I came to the city, I was ridin' high, you know. I was seeing more lights than I ever dreamed to shine in the world. 'Cos where I came from, there wasn't too many lights. Bugs made a lot of light, but after that there wasn't no lights. Well, as for Zydeco and Rhumba, I really don't know; I'm not too much into that. I'm a good-time musician that's what I'll say. And however they classify it, I'm satisfied as long as we're doing great. And we're doing real great now, and this new label, Alligator, is just doing great for us, and we're all just happy. Just tickle, tickle, tickle.

 

You lived and worked as a musician at the Lobby Bar in Juarez on the U.S./Mexican border for thirteen years. But you were actually isolated from the general blues community. How did you feel about that?
- Well, I don't know. When you're young, you don't misss what you never had. I was pretty young, and like I said, I had a good job in Juarez. I wasn't too far behind, I just wouldn't travel all over the country like I am doing now.

 

You were a local hero in Juarez and the only bluesman in West Texas. What was that situation like?
Yeah, I was a local hero. It was great for me, 'cos I had a full house every night all night seven nights a week for five years that I played. The next five years I just played five days a week, but I still had a full house every night. Juarez, you know, that was the right time for Juarez and the right time for me at that time. Because it was wild and crazy over there. If they didn't have ten fights a night, it was a bad night. They was gonna fight! But it didn't bother us. They'd just clean up the glass, and open the doors, and te house'd be packed again with eveyrbody dancing and having a good time. So it was a crazy place! Everybody had a great time every night. Not just one or two nights, no - every night they had a great time! We had every kind of audience you could name. Young, old, not-so-old, some older than old, some younger than young: they were there, they were there! There was everything. A lot of people that went to the Lobby for many years they turned out to be lawyers and doctors right there in El Paso, so…They're still around, for they didn't let that crazy life get to them. And it was a good job for me. I started playing in Juarez in August 1957, and I stayed there till 1970. I went away for a couple of years, just kind of goofed off a little, but I went back, and the total years I played in Juarez was ten years.

 

Did the fact that you were the only bluesman in West Texas help your career, then?
Yeah, it did, because like I said, I learned a lot meeting so many different people every night. We had a regular crowd, but we also had a lot of tourist people through there every night, so I learned a lot, I sure did.

 

Could you tell me any filthy stories from your time at the Lobby? I believe I read somewhere that there was his guy who got his rocks off to the rhythm of your band!
-"Yeah!" - (Long John Hunter laughs) "That's the doggone truth! I never had them to print that. But I tell that and people say: "You're lying!", but that actually happened. He did, he sure did! That was just the thing he'd do every night. I mean he'd come every night and do the same thing. You know, he'd start here and wind up way over here doing his thing", chuckles Long John Hunter.

 

Another fan of Hunter's from the early days is fellow Texan and ZZ Top member Billy Gibbon's, as manager Steve Jeter relates:

 

- ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons declared himself a long-time Long John Hunter fan, and in fact he knew a lot of Long John's material, the titles of the songs off of some of John's bootlegged albums. About a year ago, it was howling, 'cos we were doing a Day of the Dead (Mexican feast) function in El Paso. Purely by coincidence we were in El Paso on the off night that Billy Gibbons was looking for Long John Hunter in El Paso. Normally, Long John lives about 350 miles away from there, and we wouldn't have been there any other night. And in walks Billy Gibbons, and declares himself a long-time Long John Hunter fan, and immediately asks us to go out to eat and to go back to his hotel room. But we had to play Fort Worth the next night, and he had off, so coincidentally he was playing Dallas the night after we played Fort Worth. So he said: "Can we make arrangements for y'all to stay? Come to the show, be our guests!" So we did that and I mean, this guy really knew Long John's stuff inside out. And he talked about how he loved Ride With Me, and then asked us to go to Oklahoma City. So we went up there and hung out after the show till 6:30 the next morning, went to a Denny's and ate breakfast for five hours and talked about everything. Anyway, so we're in pretty good communication with Billy Gibbons right now.

 


Early Years

 


What was your life like before you hit the Lobby Bar?
-Well, I didn't too much have a life, before that, because I was on the farm (parent's farm in Arkansas), and I was working seven days a week on the farm. So I was pretty isolated then too, 'cos in Arkansas we didn't go no place, we just worked on the farm all the time and that was my life - sharecropping. I was about 24 years old when I left the farm, and I started to work when I was eight years old on the farm.

 

Where were you born?
- I was born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas.

 

What was your upbringing like?
- I had a good upbringing in all respects. I learned how to treat people and to be honest. That was the thing in our home. Be honest with people. You had to speak what you think and just tell te truth all the time, and that kind of just growed up in me, you know.

 

Were your parents together during your childhood and teenage years?
- Yeah, they were together untill they both passed. One at 84 and one at 88. They're both gone now, so now I'm left with a whole bunch of sisters and brothers down in Beaumont, Texas.

 

Were your parents musically inclined at all?
- Naw! Well, my dad he played a little bit of guitar, like Lightning Hopkins. He'd also try to play like Muddy Waters, but he was not really a musician, that was just something he did around the house whenever he was home.

 

What was your upbringing like, musically speaking?
- I didn't have any music life when I was in the country. Not at all. The only music you heard in the country was country and western. Well, I had one song that I thought I could play better than the guy, and that was [Bill Monroe or Elvis Presley's?- Ed.] Blue Moon over Kentucky, and that was about it, you know.

 

So we're actually talking about your listening to radio stations in order to learn about new kinds of music?
- Yeah, we didn't have but one radio, and it only worked two weeks and then two weeks it was down, so we didn't hear it too much, though (laughs).

 

Are you self taught on the guitar?
- I am. Very self taught. Well, you know, I worked hard trying to master my craft of what I know of how to play guitar. I wanna be a better player on the guitar, but I am a seasoned guitar player, so I kind of have a direction, and I stick with that. I don't read music, but I hear real good, and I thinks pretty fast some times.

 

Like many other musicians coming up in the 1950s, Hunter was influenced profoundly by BB King, who, as he relates, "was my first real exposure to the real music world". Upon hearing King, Hunter put together a band, and set out to work in local bars, eventually coming to play with many of the blues greats of the time.

 

You played with Etta Jemes, Gatemouth Brown, , and Albert Collins, e.g. How did you get to play with all of those blues legends?
- Well, it just kinda happens. If you're out here, you just kinda meet people, and from time to time you get a chance to play on the same show as some of the greats. Some of these artists, I never played in their bands as such, we were just playing on the same show. However, Albert Collins was a good friend of mine. We were all 'round in Houston playing in the same kind circuit. Gatemouth was the same; we all played in the same kind of circuit. Well, it's just kind of a habit for good people to meet good people, so that's the most way that I could describe how you meet all these good people.

 


A good role model

 

As far as I know, you're a teetotaller, never tasted drugs or the like?
- No, I never did.

 

How did you stay clear of various substances at the Lobby?
-Well, that was just never gonna be part of my life to do drugs or to smoke or drink. That just wasn't to be. I didn't want it, I wouldn't have it, and I still don't want it and I won't have it. I just call myself smart; I'll just say "The Lucky One".

 

What about women?
- Well, I've seen a few ladies here and there, but I never was no womanizer. I had all the chance in the world to have a whole bunch of women, but that never was a big thing with me, so I stuck to one person pretty much all the time.

 

Did you ever marry?
-Yes, I was married for ten years, and I've got three daughters who lives in Houston.

 

How is your career going?
-Oh great, real great! I'm doing real great. I've got a good band that works hard, I got on keyboard Mr Ruff Ruffner, on bass Mr. Jonathan Skifferton, Michaels Skifferton on the drums, and on the saxophone, I've got Mr Kevin Brown. We renamed him a few of weeks ago. He is now known as "The Cheeseburger". We got a pretty tight group here.

 

Any new recording plans?
-Yes, I got one CD more to do on my now contract, and that'll probably be the last of the year when I record that. It should be out on Alligator Records some time in early 1999.

 

Do you see any resurgence of interest in blues music?
-Oh, I do, because there are a lot of young kids out there now, trying to learn how to play the blues. But te blues is one thing you gotta be able to feel it to really play it. You can't just think it and play it. You gotta have a feel for it. But they're doing great, so they're keeping it alive.

 

The harp player Sugar Blue said in a Down Beat interview a couple of years ago: "If you haven't lived 'em (the blues), you can't play 'em."
- That's about right. You know, you can play what you think, but you're not playing the blues. You're just playing what you think is te blues, but you gotta feel it. I'm pretty stuck on that. You do have to feel the blues to play the blues.

 

How would you define that, "feeling the blues "?
- Well, you know, there are certain licks that you play that fits a mood like, to where…if you played the same chord and somebody else played it, they couldn't phrase it with the feeling that a blues player has when he play that same note.

 

So we're not talking about having a hard life…?
- Well, some times you can look at the blues as having a hard life, but I don't look at it like that. I play happy blues, and I want people to go away saying: "I had a great time". I don't want people to go away crying, saying: "I lost my best friend", or whatever. I could play the blues to that effect, but that's not the way I wanna be known as a blues player. I wanna be a happy blues player....

 


Photo and text by Peter Widmer / Jefferson#118


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