Long John Hunter Interview: Long Way from Juarez
Long John Hunter is one of those figures that offers all of us a ray of hope. While he toiled away as a working club guitarist for decades, he didn't record his first full-length album until he was in his 60s "Ride With Me," for the now-defunct Spindletop label. The disc was later reissued by Alligator after the label signed the senior blues attraction to a deal that finally earned him recognition outside his native Texas. He has since added another two discs to his catalog: Border Town Legend and Swinging From the Rafters.
Long John cut his teeth at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico, just south of El Paso and not far from Fort Bliss, the U.S. military base that guaranteed Hunter a steady stream of drunken, brawling fans from whom to gain inspiration. As such his music is muscly and rowdy, and fully-steeped in the Texas roadhouse tradition.
Long John sat down with Guitar.com to discuss the '50s Texas blues scene, including his experiences with a young B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Be sure to check out the exclusive Guitar.com video guitar lesson with Long John too. It's just our way of delivering a little blues you can use.
Guitar.com: John, can you tell us how you first became interested in guitar?
Long John Hunter: When I seen Mr. B.B. King, that was my total influence of trying to play guitar.
Guitar.com: Do you remember when that was?
Hunter: 1953. And I was just fresh from the country and I thought, "Man, if that guy could play the guitar like that, maybe I could learn how to do something with it." So, I saw him Wednesday, bought a guitar Thursday, and played my first gig Friday. I probably scared everybody but I made $2.50 and I thought, "Hey, I'm ready now." So, I've been trying ever since. Not too good at it yet. I feel in 80 years I'll have it down pretty good. Believe it or not, I intend to live that long.
Guitar.com: What was B.B. King doing at that time, in '53? what kind of songs? Do you remember what his hits were at that point?
Hunter: Yeah, I remember he played "Woke Up This Morning" and everything like that. "Three O'clock in the Morning." Man, he did that thing and the ladies was reaching all down here getting all kind of garments and throwing it up there. I said, "Gee, what is this man doing to these women" They was throwing wigs and everything! just ripping them wigs off their heads. That just excited me. I ain't had that happen to me yet, so I'm still trying.
Guitar.com: Was blues your first love and has that always been your style?
Hunter: Yeah because being in the country, you never hear no blues music, never. Unless you hear a Mockingbird maybe, sing the blues once in a while. Cause at that time you didn't have nothing but radio and everybody didn't have a radio. So it really just wasn't too much happening out there in the country where I was.
Guitar.com: Where did you grow up?
Guitar.com: What kind of stuff was on the radio? What did you grow up listening to?
Hunter: Hank Snow and Lefty Frizzell and all those guys. Wasn't too much of nothing else happening, just that kind of stuff: country music.
Guitar.com: Where were you living when you started playing in clubs?
Hunter: In Beaumont, Texas.
Guitar.com: And did you play around that area for quite a while?
Hunter: About two-and-a-half years. I got real popular I mean just real quick. I mean it was really amazing. Within two weeks after I started playing, we had more work than we could do. We wasn't playing too good but we was working. And I thought that was pretty good, you know, to just be starting out and having the phone ring all day: "Can you play this weekend?" It wasn't like it was all week. It was just mostly Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and sometimes Monday. 'Cause all of us had day jobs so we couldn't afford to do too much.
Guitar.com: Did you get a chance to see T-Bone Walker and all those guys?
Hunter: Yeah. Actually a couple of months after B.B. was in Beaumont, I saw T-Bone Walker at another club around the corner from where I saw B.B. By now I'm really into seeing who's playing guitar. So, T-Bone he had a real - I guess I would call it kind of strange style. He didn't play his guitar like normal, he played it [perpendicular to his body]. So, I never really tried to play like that but I thought that was real neat. He'd jump up and do the split, with his guitar like that. He always had a big, blonde guitar you know. That was nice.
Guitar.com: How about Gatemouth Brown?
Hunter: Yeah well, Gatemouth and his brothers, we was all in the same circle. Gatemouth was a little stronger than the rest of us because he had already been recording for Peacock and Duke. I guess he was a part of both labels because they were owned by the same company. I played with his brothers. He had one called Widemouth, the other one was named Bigmouth. So I guess they could've been called The Mouth Gang.
Guitar.com: You played in bands with these guys?
Hunter: Oh yeah. Yeah, around Houston. Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins ? we was all around right in the same circle.
Guitar.com: Did you jam with these guys all the time?
Hunter: Yeah. We didn't actually play together all the time but some of the time we'd just meet up and have jam time. But we all had our own thing. But the circle was only so big that all of us played in, but everybody made the clubs holler. We played matinees, we had to work three gigs to make $21.00 'cause that was top pay in Houston: $7.00. That was the day gig. That was a weekend gig, $7.00. When you made your $7.00, you have sold a lot of Jack's beer.
Guitar.com: $7.00 per person?
Hunter: Yeah. You had to do 3 or 4 gigs a day to make $21.00.
Guitar.com: So, what time period are we talking here? When were you doing all this Houston stuff?
Hunter: '55, '56.
Guitar.com: And when did you do your first recording, and what was it?
Hunter: My first recording? I recorded in Beaumont, in a radio station. And it was just something that I just kind of put together. One side was called "She Used To Be My Woman and Look Who's Got Her Now," and the other side was called "Crazy Girl." Later years, Phillip Walker recorded that "Crazy Girl" thing. I never got paid but he recorded it.
Guitar.com: Where did you go from there, recording-wise?
Hunter: See what happened was this thing was playing so much on the radio and in those days the recording studios had this thing where if they had an artist of their own that they was trying to push to go out there - if they had some little nitwit like me doing anything, they'd get him off the street. So what happened was Don Robey, over at Peacock in Houston, had heard all, 'cause every radio within just miles was playing this "Used To Be My Woman" and "Crazy Girl." He had no interest in that particular project. He had Gatemouth and Bobby Bland just doing their thing, at this time, and that was running too much interference for them. So he decided he wanted to sign me. And I've got a big 78 [RPM record] of Duke, and once they picked this thing up off the street, you never heard it another time. So, that was just the thing to get me off the street. I was causing a lot of problems around there you know. I wasn't making no money but I was enjoying the lights of knowing every radio you turn on you're gonna hear Long John Hunter playing "She Used To Be My Woman" or "Crazy Girl." That was hot stuff.
Guitar.com: You didn't record your actual first complete album until much more recently, did you?
Guitar.com: And who was this for? It wasn't Alligator.
Hunter: No. It was a label called Spindletop. It was just a guy who, at that time, had a lot of money and no brains. So, I guess two months after that, I recorded this thing "Rivalry" on that label. A couple of months after that, that whole company just folded. I was real proud when Alligator had thought enough of it to pick it up, get it re-issued and stuff.
Guitar.com: And you've got two more albums on Alligator?
Hunter: Yeah I got two more. I got, actually, three more because now I'm part of the Lone Star Shootouts [ed. note: Lone Star Shootout refers to a 1999 collaborative effort between Hunter, Lonnie Brooks, and Phillip Walker, available on Alligator Records], you know, so I got three. In this contract, I've got one more to record. I've been trying to find the time to do it because he [Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer] really don't like to have a lot of new stuff on the street. So once I got involved in that Lone Star Shootout, that threw my other CD to be pushed back awhile. So, I'm thinking sometime this year we're going to do it. I think I found the group who can make me shine, maybe even brighter than before.
Guitar.com: Who did you play with on Lone Star Shootout?
Hunter: Lonnie Brooks, Phil Walker, and my good friend, the guy that paid the dollar-and-a-half for me to see B.B. King, Irving Charles. And to my sadness, he just passed away a little while ago.
Guitar.com: What did he play?
Guitar.com: I'm sorry about that. For a long time, you played in the Texas club scene. Where were you playing and what?
Hunter: Well, I actually played in the Mexico scene because I was in Mexico for 13 years - in Juarez, 7 days a week. And thanks to that place that gave me a chance to learn a lot of stuff because you had lots of different people coming every night, all night. And it was wild times, crazy times. Everybody was crazy, including me. I was just as crazy as the rest of them. I was just playing loud and I had no musical direction. I?d just play loud. "Johnny B. Goode," Fats Domino, and all that kind of stuff. And everybody was just happy - happy all night long, until the big fight started. Then they tear up the place and close the door. And people be standing in line for two blocks to get back in. They open the doors, come back in, then back to the same thing over and over. I did that for 10 years over there.
Guitar.com: When were you doing this?
Hunter: I started in '57 and I stopped playing in '70. So, I did, in a total, I did 13 years over there.
Guitar.com: Why Mexico?
Hunter: Well, it was a good thing for me. I came to El Paso and some friends said, "Well you gotta go to Mexico, you gotta see Mexico." And at this time, I had a couple guys that was playing at this lobby bar, in Juarez, that I knew from Houston. And they invited me to come up and play a tune and the boss had another club next door to where I was working, and somebody told him, "You gotta come over and see this guy." And he come over, stood around a little while, and he sent words for me to come to his office and asked me how would I like to work in Mexico. I said, "Well, it might be something." And then when we were speaking of dollars it sounded pretty good so I thought I was about ready for that. And we decided I'd do it and he said come to work Monday. I went to work Monday night and the rest is history.
Guitar.com: So, what kind of stuff did you learn from playing in Mexico? Were you playing other styles besides blues?
Hunter: No. I was just playing rock and roll and just playing loud. Like I said, half the time, I probably didn't know what I was playing. I just know this particular tune worked last night let's see if it'll work again tonight. And it got to where I had my whole arsenal of music already made up to where I'd just go play loud and that was it.
Guitar.com: What did you learn from T-Bone and B.B.?
Hunter: What you learn from an individual ? I guess B.B. was the only one that I knew I wanted to play like B.B. King. The rest of the people if I played their music, I just played it like I felt comfortable playing it. Not to say that I was trying to play like them, I just played the song to my own feeling. So I never tried to imitate anybody else but I had it to where I thought if I didn't play like B.B. King, that music just wasn't right. Then I decided I better try to find myself and it just kind of happened. I didn't have no idea of what my style would really be but I'm pretty comfortable with my style that I have now. It?s kind of away from most every other guitar player you know. I play a few licks here and there that?s somebody else's lick. I guess there's no guitar player alive that don't play something of somebody else's but I just don't really practice on playing somebody else's licks all of the time.