- Reflecting on a past Buddy: Long John Hunter.
"The one thing I always remember -- you know, because you meet so many people, and everybody's telling you what they do, and you think, 'Well, maybe so, maybe not' -- is when Buddy Holly came in," Hunter recalls in a phone interview. "He told me he had been there a lot of times, but he had never come up to introduce himself. The last night he was to be in town, he came up and shook my hand. He said, 'My name is Buddy Holly, and I play music, too. I play a little different type than what you're doing here, but I like what you do. I want to shake your hand and thank you for the good times.'"
Since Holly, a native of Lubbock, Texas, was unknown at the time, Hunter took the exchange lightly. But a few weeks later, he started hearing Holly's rockabilly music on the radio and wished he had been a little more enthusiastic about greeting the future star -- especially since Holly met an untimely death in a plane crash in 1959.
"I felt a little bad that I didn't put more into the handshake when I had the time and pleasure of meetin' him," Hunter says. "That was one big thing I really remember."
Raised on a cotton farm in Arkansas, Hunter was working at a box factory in Beaumont, Texas, when he saw B.B. King play and decided that he "was gonna learn how to play that guitar." It didn't take long for him to get his first paying gig, either.
"That was Wednesday night," Hunter says of the King concert. "Thursday, I went and got me a guitar. Friday, I played my first gig and made two dollars and 50 cents. We were so bad, we played with our backs to the audience."
Hunter picked up on Cajun music while working in Beaumont and soon gravitated toward the jump blues of Gatemouth Brown. After a couple of years playing bars in Houston, he moved to El Paso and quickly landed the gig across the border at the Lobby. Most of those 13 years spent in the rough bar are rather cloudy. Stories about public displays of bestiality (the infamous "donkey shows"), drunken brawls, and rampant drug use have undoubtedly been exaggerated over the years. And Hunter isn't about to set the record straight on what did or didn't go down in Juarez.
"I'll have to tell you the parts I can tell you, because it was crazy, man," he says. "At that time, I tell everybody, if you didn't see it at the Lobby, it didn't happen. That's the whole picture of that thing. You can read from that what went on."
Hunter will admit that the club's mix of farmers, college students, and soldiers was a volatile one. "They used to have a lot of fights," Hunter recalls. "When I first started there, that prejudice thing was goin' on, and there were too many different kinds of people there. A lot of people didn't like that situation. But after about a hundred fights, I guess they figured, 'We can't win this battle, so we'll just go along with the program.' We tried to just keep playing when fights broke out, because that had a way of kinda taming people down. But sometimes it would get so rough, I'd run for the high ground."
One way that Hunter would escape the riotous crowd was by hanging from the rafters. It eventually became his trademark move -- something that drew patrons to the venue because of its novelty.
"I'm pretty tall, and the ceiling wasn't sealed in -- it was two-by-fours across up over the bandstand," Hunter explains. "I was just clowning and having a good time. I took a notion to try it, and I just went out over the crowd, hanging from the rafter with my right hand and playing with my left hand. That got to be a thing I had to do every night. They had people coming in a dispute. One would tell one what he saw, the other would say it didn't happen that way. And they would bring them over, just to see that."
Originally, Hunter came to Juarez with a band from Houston. But those musicians quickly tired of the mayhem. As a result, he recruited "a couple of Mexican bartenders that had never heard or seen" the music he was playing. They turned out to be a loyal backing band, and Hunter would eventually go into the studio with them to record a series of four-tracks in a garage in New Mexico. Those singles, released on Yucca Records, were reissued two years ago on Norton Records as an album called Ooh Wee Pretty Baby. "They tell me it's doing well," Hunter says. "I got a little bit of money from it, but I don't know."
Hunter quit playing in Mexico in 1970. Even though he had a chance to buy the Lobby, he was "young and dumb," and didn't want to be tied down. He then played in El Paso for five years and continued to work the West Texas blues circuit throughout the '80s. His last several records have been issued on Alligator, the Chicago-based blues imprint, which recently released Lone Star Shootout, an album featuring Hunter and blues guitarists Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker, and a solo effort called Ride With Me.
While Hunter has never gotten the name recognition of the artists he's inspired -- namely, Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller -- he has enough work to keep busy. And he frequently plays in Europe, where he's recognized as an elder statesman of the blues.
"There's still a lot of blues lovers who want to check out old guys like me," he says. "They really love it overseas. I'm just the king over there, but I almost starve to death when I'm over there. I can never get used to that food. They try to serve you the best food, but it's just not American. I kinda like to eat what I like. I just eat regular food, not no whole lot of caviar and all that high-class stuff. I just stay around pig knuckles and stuff like that."
After a short stint in Hollywood and tours with Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Joe Turner, and Etta James, Hunter is happy to be back where he started -- in Beaumont, Texas.
"In some ways, I think this is just an ongoing thing," he says of his career. "As years go by, you gain a little more each year, you know, of what you are and what you been and where you headed. I'm 69 now, so I got a lot of memories of years that I struggled. I guess, in life, that's all that there is."