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Longing for the Blues

[whitespace] Long John Hunter Long John Hunter is swinging from the rafters

By Nicky Baxter

It's a little-known fact that from 1957 to 1970, Long John Hunter ruled Juarez, Mexico's blues scene. The Lobby, Juarez's most notorious club, was the kind of place where guys drunk on cheap whiskey would routinely beat each other down at the slightest provocation.

When Hunter performed there, he knew he'd have to muster up a gimmick that would distract the rowdies. And what better way to do that than to swing from the rafters with one hand while playing his guitar with the other?

As it turned out, Hunter's antics didn't much diminish the number of brawls that broke out, but between bouts, he did manage to entertain the unruly Lobby well into the next decade.

A Kingly Connection

Chances are that Long John Hunter would have wound up a farmer or, far worse, a boxer maker had it not been for B.B. King. Sure, countless musicians owe their choice of careers to the King and his Lucille. But rarely has a guitarist been so reluctant to join the blues fold.

Speaking over the phone from a hotel in Phoenix, the Louisiana-born, Arkansas-raised singer-guitarist recalls the life-altering moment: "At the time [circa 1952], I was making wooden boxes in Beaumont [Texas]. Guys was worryin' me about goin' to see B.B. King. But I wasn't gonna go; I was just a green country boy. Then when I found out it cost a dollar-fifty, I really wasn't gonna go. I wasn't payin' that much money to see nobody."

As it turned out, Hunter wound up at the show--a buddy paid his way. "As soon as I saw [King] up there," Hunter recalls. "I knew that was what I wanted to do." Hunter finally repaid his friend--some 45 years after the fact. "Yep," he chuckles, "I got it all on video--me payin' him back. Guess you could say that was the best dollar-fifty I ever borrowed."

Once His Baby

During his tenure at the Lobby, it never occurred to Hunter to get into a studio and capture the madness on plastic. After all, Hunter's 1954 debut on Don Robey's Duke Records, "She Used to Be My Baby," had been anything but auspicious.

In fact, the single had been recorded at a tiny, now-defunct radio station for some long-forgotten label. "Before Duke got ahold of it," Hunter avows, "radio stations were playin' the heck out of that record. When Don Robey took over, it just disappeared. Never heard it again. And I didn't get paid a dime, either."

Understandably, Hunter sounds slightly vexed recalling his brief encounter with Robey's label. No doubt, the experience helps explain Hunter's indifference toward actively pursuing another recording contract. Indeed, Hunter would record only sporadically until his signing with Alligator Records two years ago.

If Swinging From the Rafters (Alligator), his aptly named current release, is any indicator, blues-lovers certainly have been robbed of some hellaciously good music for far too long. From the swinging insouciance of "Time and Time Again," the introductory ditty, to the celebratory slow blues of "Love Prevails," Hunter and his backing unit, the Walking Catfish, flex their unique brand of late-night good-time music as if it were party time, 1999.

Though the King connection is apparent in the sweetly singing guitar sound the former has made famous, Hunter's sense of timing and phrasing bear his own stamp to which he adds an exuberant, Texas-wide vocal style.

Asked if he considers his sound part of the Texas blues tradition, Hunter demurs, quietly declaring his brand of music "Long John Hunter music." He elaborates: "Most people when they think of blues think sad and low-down. Now I can get low-down, but that's not what my music's about; I play happy music."

If playing juke joints across Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana can be described as Hunter's precollegiate dues-paying era, it was in Juarez that he earned his doctorate in bluesology.

Looking back Hunter readily concedes that the 13-year stint at the Lobby paved the way for his current success: "It was really a learning experience. I just played loud and had a good time. If there was [just] 10 fights a night, something was wrong.

Hunter has a shipload of recollections, but the one he remembers most--and claims to regret most--is the time James Brown rolled across the border from El Paso during the mid-'60s.

J.B. undoubtedly expected a quick and dirty sonic TKO. Didn't happen. "He came over and got booed offstage," Hunter says. "[The audience] kept shouting my name--'We want Long John, we want Long John.'

"I felt so bad," Hunter says, sounding not so bad at all.

Long John Hunter appears March 21 at JJ's Blues in Santa Clara.

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