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Live Review
Long John Hunter
@ Famous Dave's, Jan. 29, 1999
By Ray Stiles
Long John Hunter
Jan. 29, 1999
Photo © 1999 Tom Asp. All rights reserved
46 years ago a young guitar player by the name of Irving Charles took his friend John Hunter to see B.B. King perform in Beaumont, Texas. They each paid $1.50 for the show that was to be a major turning point in Long John Hunter's life. As Hunter relates, "I went to see B.B. King and I just said man oh man, I've got to learn how to play the guitar. So this was Wednesday night, Thursday I went and bought me a guitar and Friday I played a gig (laughs). It was awful. It was really sick. Well, we didn't have but a few people there, we played for the door and the three of us (2 guitars and a drum) we made $2.50 a piece. Man we was in the cash. (This was) big bucks here playing music. Thank God I have never been out of work since then as far as music goes. I never made any money to any amount but I've always been lucky to have some work to do." The legend of Long John Hunter was born.

It was just a few years later, in 1957, that Long John started a regular gig just across the border from El Paso in Juarez, Mexico that lasted more than a decade. He played at a popular club called the Lobby Bar in Juarez from sundown to sunup. John said with a laugh, "that was a party from 8 o'clock 'til 'please go home ya-all' in the morning."

John's second album on Alligator Records, called "Swinging From The Rafters" is a direct reference to some of his antics at the Lobby Bar in Juarez. I asked him about that album cover that shows him swinging from a rafter with his guitar in the other hand. He said, "yeah, I don't feel like doing that much these days. I'm about 100 pounds heavier and 40 years older. I still do crazy things but I don't swing from the rafters, I really don't have any to swing from. That really got a lot of attention when I started doing it though. It just happened too, I wasn't looking for it, it was just a crazy thing to do while performing. I thought, 'this ain't too high up here', the bandstand was about 'so high' and that made the ceiling a good reach for me. I just reached way out and got one (rafter) and swung way out. The dance floor was right out in front of the bandstand and I was up over the people's heads swinging there on one hand and playing the guitar with the other. They just went crazy. So it was just a thing I had to do 2 or 3 times a night after that first time."

Born in Louisiana on July 13, 1931 Hunter moved to Arkansas when he was three. He said he "picked a lot of cotton and plowed a lot with mules." When he was 22 his family moved to Beaumont, Texas about which he said, "I just got excited when I went to Beaumont. It was the first town I had ever been in that was of any size. The little towns I had seen in Arkansas were just little one stop towns." He said he was 23 before he ever thought about playing music. "In Arkansas all I heard was country music, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, something like that. I wasn't too musically inclined, I still ain't, I just make a lot of noise and get away with it. I hadn't heard any music but a little country and western. We didn't have nothin' but a radio. And it ran off a car battery. We'd listen to the radio for 2 weeks and then for 2 weeks we didn't have a radio because at that time it took 2 weeks to charge the battery up to be ready for the next 2 weeks of radio (laughs.)"
Long John Hunter
Jan. 29, 1999
Photo © 1999 Tom Asp. All rights reserved

Long John made is first appearance in the Twin Cities last summer (July 23, 1998 at Famous Dave's) and his fans were looking forward to his return engagement. He started out the first set with a couple of funky numbers to warm things up. And after doing "Kansas City" and "Shake Rattle and Roll" he made his way out into the audience and began to ham it up. He is a low-keyed player, not real wild like he used to be in his early days but you can still see hints of that wildness. And he still is a master at working the audience (a trait he learned from his years at the Lobby Bar in Juarez.) He proceeded to pick out one of the ladies sitting up front and handed her his guitar. He had her strum it while he continued to finger the fretbord with his left hand picking out the melody of the song. He hasn't lost his touch at pleasing the crowd. He sure was swinging by this time, maybe not from the rafters but pretty close. Back up on stage he said the crowd likes to dance to familiar tunes as he launched into the James Brown "I Feel Good" lyrics. His first set lasted nearly 2 hours which is nothing I guess compared to when he was used to playing all night long.

Hunter's guitar style has a raw, Texas blues sound to it. Not too flashy but played with a feeling. There is a little bit of Albert Collins but mostly his style reminds me of the early B.B. King and Jimmy Dawkins -- playing single note solos followed by short breaks where he sings. I asked him who his influences were and he said, "I like all kinds of music and I like all kinds of musicians but B.B. King was my total influence on me trying to be a musician. I mean totally. I like all kinds of musicians. I like Lonnie Brooks, Phillip Walker, Little Milton, everybody, I'm just a music lover. But for an inspiration B.B. was it. I met him for the first time in 1961, in Midland, Texas. He had a show and I was playing an after hour thing when he came down about 2 A.M. and played my guitar until 6 in the morning. We had breakfast and we had a great time talking about how he got started, how tough it was and all that kind of stuff. Just a great guy."

Knowing Hunter was from Texas I had to ask him if he ever meet Buddy Holly? He said, "I met Buddy once but didn't know who he was at the time; after one of my shows in Juarez. He came up one night and said he was fixin' to leave for California and said, 'I just wanted to shake your hand Long John , my name is Buddy Holly.' Well at that time it was just a name because you meet all kinds of people all the time. And he shook hands and said, 'you don't know who I am but I've been here quite a few nights listening to you and I've enjoyed it. I'm a musician myself even though we play a little different style of music. But I'm leaving tomorrow for California and I just wanted to shake your hand and maybe I'll see you down the road.' Well I shook his hand and didn't think anymore about it. A few weeks after it happened I heard that name on the radio, Buddy Holly. I said, Buddy Holly? I shook hands with this guy the other night. I though he was just somebody like the other hundreds of guys that shook my hand and say I'm so and so and I play music, and I do this, you know. And after a while he was a household name. That was the first and only time I seen him."

Talking about his buddies from back in Texas in the 1950's he said he was going to have a recording session in the near future reuniting Lonnie Brooks (known as Lee Baker and Guitar Junior back then), Phillip Walker, and Irving Charles. That will be one fun recording session.

Long John Hunter has three albums out on Alligator Records. Ride With Me (1998, but recorded in 1992), Swinging From The Rafters (1997) and Border Town Legend (1996); all excellent examples of his work.

This review is copyright © 1999 by Ray Stiles and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.

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