Long John's classic 1993 album from the Spindletop label, lovingly remixed and remastered by Alligator. Superb Texas blues, swings like crazy. "One of the year's best blues discs...not to be missed--LIVING BLUES
Long John Hunter, Guitar and Vocals Derek O'Brien, Rhythm Guitar (lead on Tell Me ) Erbie Bowser, Piano Sarah Brown, Bass George Rains, Drums with Mark Kazanoff, Te...
Long John Hunter, Guitar and Vocals Derek O'Brien, Rhythm Guitar (lead on Tell Me ) Erbie Bowser, Piano Sarah Brown, Bass George Rains, Drums with Mark Kazanoff, Tenor Saxophone Red Rails, Baritone Saxophone Gary Slechta, Trumpet on Dream About The Devil, Crazy Love and El Paso Rock Ed Guinn, Organ on Dream About The Devil and Crazy Love T.D. Bell, Guitar and Vocal on West Texas Homecoming
Produced by Jon Foose, Ed Guinn and Tary Owens for Red Drum Productions Jim Watts, Associate Producer Recorded and mixed by Jim Watts at Lone Star Studios, Austin, TX Ride With Me, Bad Feet, Dream About The Devil and West Texas Homecoming remixed for Alligator Records by Jim Watts Remastered for Alligator Records by Jason Rau and Bruce Iglauer at Monster Disc, Chicago, IL Photos by Jonny Cates Design by David Forte
Originally released on Spindletop Records (SPT 1003), licensed for rerelease by Red Drum Productions
If Anyone knows a thing or two about Late Nights in Smoke-Filled Bars, Wild Men and even Wilder Women, and how Live Music can Incite a Fight or Jump-Start a Romance, it is Long John Hunter.
For a significant stretch of time between 1957 and 1970, Hunter ruled over Juarez, Mexico as the King of the Night, holding court in the Lobby Bar, the centerpiece of an entertainment strip that functioned as an all-purpose Sin City for a significant percentage of the population of the southwestern United States, particularly residents of El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande. Anything you wanted, you could get in Juarez, if you were willing to pay for it, a tolerant attitude reflected in the welcoming remarks from taxi drivers to young men who had just crossed the International Bridge: "Hey, boys, what you looking for? Girls? Feelthy pictures? Marijuana? Heroin? Spanish fly? Switchblades? You wanna see the donkey show?" No matter what particular vice prompted a visitor to enter this zone of forbidden vices, no trip to Juarez was complete without getting a stiff shot of the blues and rock-and-roll that Hunter was always cooking up at the Lobby-- "Monday to Monday", as he put it--seven nights a week, from the early evening until sunrise.
The driving beat, the lowdown sounds, and Long John's penchant for hanging from the rafters, strolling the avenue outside the club with his Fender Telecaster plugged into an extra long cord, or whatever it took to get a rise out of the crowd, was the perfect fuel for stoking the round-the-clock party that was Juarez back then.
Nobody ever gave much thought about the strange juxtaposition of a black entertainer fronting a band of Mexicans playing American roots music in a foreign country in the middle of a desert to a crowd of Fort Bliss soldiers, New Mexico farmers and ranchers, frat boys from Texas Western College, El Paso teens on a bender, and thrill-seeking tourists just passing through. Everyone was too busy having a good time to do that. But no matter what tricks Long John pulled out of his hat to hold a house full of tanked-up hedonists in sway, he always did it in an effortless way that suggested he was born to play. That impression, I eventually learned, was an understatement.
Even he didn't know what mighty talent he possessed until B.B. King inadvertently pulled it out of him back in 1953 when Hunter was 24. He was born in Louisiana and grew up in the backwoods of Magnolia, Arkansas, where he worked as a sharecropper, earning 30 cents for every hundred pounds of cotton he picked from sunup to sundown. "You've heard about the end of the road?" Hunter laughs. "I lived in the field at the end of the path beyond the end of the road." When his parents followed their jobs with a sawmill that relocated from Magnolia to the southeast Texas community of Devers in the Piney Woods near Beaumont, Long John tagged along, landing a steady job at a box factory, pulling down a hefty $57.40 for a 40 hour work week.
One day he heard his co-workers talking about going to see a guitar man from Memphis named B.B. King, who was appearing at the Raven Club in Beaumont on Wednesday night. Hunter was curious, until they mentioned the $1.50 cover charge. That was too much coin to drop for a night on the town, he figured. But his co-workers wanted the Arkansas country boy to see some real entertainment so they paid his way. He walked up to the club to find a line of finely dressed black folks snaking around the building and down the street. The scene inside was just as remarkable. ìThere was a house full of people carrying on, all these people drinking, screaming, and hollering,î he remembers. Then out walked the master of ceremonies.
"Are you ready for the man?!?!" the MC shouted dramatically when it was showtime. The primed crowd answered with a lusty "YEEEAAAAH!". King took the stage and started to work his magic while Long John's jaw dropped to the floor. It wasn't just the music, it was the way the crowd reacted to it. Women showered the stage with shoes, dresses, hats, and driver's licenses, anything to get the main man's attention.
"I was going to myself, 'Woooo Wee, who is this guy?'" Hunter recalls. "I said to myself, 'If he can play that guitar like that, I oughta be able to do that, too.'" The problem was that Long John Hunter didn't know diddley squat about playing guitar, singing, or making music. Undeterred, he decided to do something about it. The next day, he went to Swicegood Music in downtown Beaumont and purchased a blond Fender Telecaster electric guitar. That night he commenced teaching himself how to play, which immediately got a response...from the police. "About eleven o'clock they came and told me if I didn't turn down, they'd take me to jail."
Undaunted, he kept on working through the night, trying to decipher the sounds his fingers could make when he moved the strings with them. "I found me a sound that I thought I liked, that fit my ear and I played that sound, no changes or nothing, for hours and hours and hours." The next night, 48 hours after he'd seen B.B. King, he hustled his way onto the stage of a small club with two friends, earning $2.50 for playing the same two songs over and over for the next three hours. "And I haven't been without a gig since."
Within a year, Long John Hunter was performing on the same stage at Raven Club where he first encountered B.B. King. Fortunately for someone getting his training on-the-job like Hunter was, the Beaumont-Port Arthur area was an extremely fertile breeding ground of all kinds of blues--the jump variety preferred by guitarist Gatemouth Brown and his brothers Widemouth and Big Mouth; the rhumba-infected boogie of Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow; the exotic French creole variety of blues known as Zydeco, popularized by a local accordionist that Hunter knew named Clifton Chenier; and the straight-razor style that rubbed off on younger players like Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker.
Hunter's sole venture into the recording studio during this period was a single, Crying Girl b/w She Used to Be My Woman, that he made at a local radio station and eventually became so big in Beaumont, it attracted the interest of Don Robey, the impresario of Duke Records in Houston, 100 miles away. Robey signed Hunter and reissued his single on Duke, but subsequently sat on the record, prompting Hunter to suspect he'd been signed merely to keep him from competing with Robey's big acts.
Still, his dealings with Robey gave him enough of a taste of big city life that he moved to Houston in 1955 in search of further opportunity. "There wasn't too many musicians around. We wasn't doing anything. I figured I could do better." He knocked around for two years fronting his band, the Hollywood Bear Cats, working shows with established artists like Johnny Copeland, Little Milton and Lowell Fulson until a cousin of one of the Bear Cats persuaded him to come out to El Paso, 700 miles across the state.
The trip paid off in spades. "I landed in El Paso on a Saturday and had a gig at the Lobby Bar by that night," he says. Hunter was playing pretty much the same material he'd always been playing ever since his encounter with B.B. King. It might have been nothing out of the ordinary for Houston or Beaumont, but this was extremely exotic stuff to most ears in West Texas. "Blues was kind of a new thing," he observes. "They had C&W and mariachis out there, but nothing like what I was doing." Just like B.B. King at the Raven Club, Hunter discovered he and his guitar could work some serious magic on a crowd too, and the Lobby became his second home, if a somewhat raucous one. "If they didn't have 10 fights, it was a bad night." He became a legend in his own right, so valued that the club owner hired two massive Mexican bodyguards to accompany him to and from work. Twice, James Brown and his entire revue, passing through, stopped to sit in with Hunter. Ray Sharpe, another Texas blues and rock-and-roll performer with the Top Ten hit Linda Lu, was so floored he wrote and recorded a song about Long John and the Lobby. Guitarist and fiddle player Charlie Daniels unsuccessfully tried to convince him to come with him to Nashville. Then there was the young teen guitarist from El Paso named Bobby Fuller who fell under his spell until he headed for Hollywood and the big time.
Oddly enough, Hunter didn't make that transition himself. Three times, he too, tried to crack the scene in Southern California, but rejected it for health reasons. "That smog made my eyes get redder than a fox's butt," he complains good-naturedly. He toured with stars like Ike and Tina, Aretha, Little Milton, Joe Turner, and Etta James. But no matter what happened, he inevitably returned to El Paso and Juarez.
By the mid seventies though, Juarez and the forbidden pleasures it promised across the Rio Grande had lost their dazzle. A rapidly changing morality and easy access to many of the same vices on this side of the border significantly diminished Juarez's once-legendary luster after dark. The only artifacts of that glorious era were a few dog-eared photos and a handful of obscure Long John Hunter 45 rpm singles on the Yucca label, made for a small-time hustler in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Long John Hunter, however, never really faded away. He continued working the West Texas club circuit and in 1985, was prompted to record his first album, Smooth Magic, released only overseas, after he paid $25 for a European compilation of his Yucca singles. Finally in 1992, Long John Hunter, the man with the larger-than-life word-of-mouth reputation, got his big break in the form of recording this album in Austin with full accompaniment and subsequently touring the Netherlands. At 62, when most of his surviving peers are doing their rocking in easy chairs, Long John is just now getting his due. It was, he claims, all a matter of patience and timing.
"I learned one thing a long time ago--an old goose is better than no goose, and if he's an old goose and a good goose, why not deal with him?" Why not indeed? Especially considering the particular old goose in question. So deal the cards, put the disc in the player, close your eyes, and make like it's 3 a.m. at the Lobby on a Sunday morning. It has been a rather long, twisted journey to get to this particular point, but when asked about the significance of it all, Long John Hunter has one simple conclusion: "Let's eat!"
By all means then, dig in.
--Joe Nick Patoski
Special thanks to Steve Jeter, Erbie Bowser, T.D. Bell, Darlene Hunter, Tom Hunter, David Lastie, Jimmy K. and Kreuz Market.
"Raw and exciting...one of today’s most consistently satisfying blues artists at the height of his powers, wild and untamed. Without a doubt one of the year’s finest blues discs and is not to be missed." - LIVING BLUES