Blues Bytes


August 2010

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Long John Hunter
Border Town Legend

Long John Hunter

Long John Hunter got a late start in the music business. At 22, he was working in a box factory in Beaumont, TX. One night he attended a B. B. King show and his life changed. The next day, he bought a guitar and within the year, he was playing regularly at the same bar where King had played. He recorded a single for Duke Records in 1954 and later moved to El Paso.

For 13 years, Hunter crossed the Texas/Mexico border into Juarez and held court at the notorious Lobby Bar, where he worked hard seven nights a week entertaining a varied cast of characters including soldiers from nearby Fort Bliss, cowboys, locals, frat boys, and everyone else with marathon performances lasting from dusk till dawn with an inexperienced band sometimes consisting of the club’s Mexican bartenders. His performances were sometimes highlighted by Hunter swinging through the rafters by one arm while playing with the other.

Though Hunter toiled away in relative obscurity, he was still an influence on artists like Phillip Walker and Lonnie Brooks. He also recorded a handful of singles for the New Mexico label Yucca. These sides showed a muscular, gutsy guitar attack and some rapidly developing composing and singing ability. He eventually recorded a pair of albums, one financed by a mobile home mogul in the mid ’80s that was little heard, and one in 1993 for the tiny Spindletop label that was well-received but also limited in distribution. However, the Spindletop recording got the attention of many of the right blues people and, next thing you know, Hunter was signed to Alligator, one of the blues genre’s major labels, and released Border Town Legend.

Hunter wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 tracks on the disc, ranging from mid-tempo tunes like “T-Bone Intentions” and “Nasty Ways” to slow blues tracks like “Ice Cold” and “Marfa Lights,” to up-tempo numbers like “Ole Red” and “Lone Star Shootout.” The guitar takes center stage on the appropriately titled album closer, “John’s Funk.” Covers include the old O. V. Wright standard, “Everybody Knows,” and Titus Turner’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries.”

Hunter’s guitar playing is unique. Since he was the only bluesman playing in the area where he worked, he has a really original style that has some traces or B. B. King, of course, but you also hear echoes of Chuck Berry and the R&B artists from his time in the ’50s in his songs and his vocals. He’s capable of mixing it up vocally, too, alternating between tough and tender as fits the song. He’s not fancy by any means, but what he does, he does well. Border Town Legend was a success and moved Hunter from the confines of West Texas to broader national and international attention.

Hunter released one more disc for Alligator, 1997’s Swinging From The Rafters. Later in the decade, he teamed with contemporaries Walker and Brooks (and another local legend, Ervin Charles) for Lone Star Shootout. He’s recorded quite a bit less in the 2000s, only a collaboration with his brother Tom, and last year’s Looking For A Party, on Blues Express. In addition, his Spindletop release, Ride With Me, was reissued on Alligator and those elusive Yucca recordings have been reissued on Norton Record.

Recently diagnosed with some heart problems, Hunter has slowed down a bit over the past couple of years, but is still playing when he gets a chance. He may not swing through the rafters so much anymore, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

--- Graham Clarke
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