Internationally known Texas guitar legend Long John Hunter, 84, died in his sleep at his home in Phoenix, Arizona on Monday, January 4. His signature Texas blues were fueled by his single-note solos and melodic, drawling vocals. The Los Angeles Times called him "a top notch singer, guitarist and unbridled wildman performer...a raw, feral talent bursting with energy." During a 60-year career, he recorded seven solo albums and a number of 45s.
Long before Hunter became a world-renowned recording artist, he was already a major draw in the Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas region, where he cut his first 45. In 1957 he headed to Juarez, Mexico where he led the house band at the rough and tumble Lobby Bar for the next 13 years. There he played for locals, cowboys, soldiers, tourists and touring musicians, including Buddy Holly, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lightnin' Hopkins, Etta James, Albert Collins and many others. He became a mentor to a young Bobby Fuller (I Fought The Law). Twice James Brown brought his band to witness Hunter in action. The second time Brown surprisingly took the stage during a set break. Unfazed, the audience screamed for Brown and company to move on and clear the way for the return of their hero, Long John Hunter.
Hunter became regionally famous not only for his musicianship, but for his showmanship. One of his favorite tricks was to hold his guitar by the neck in one hand while continuing to play. With his free hand, he'd reach up, grab a rafter above the stage and start to swing, never missing a beat. The Lobby Bar crowd delighted in Long John's antics, and they inspired the title of his 1997 album, Swingin' From The Rafters.
John T. Hunter, Jr. was born in Ringgold, Louisiana on July 13, 1931 and grew up in Arkansas and Texas. He had no interest in being a professional musician until, when he was 22, co-workers at the Beaumont, Texas box factory where he worked took him to see B.B. King perform at the Raven Club. Hunter later said he was amazed at the reception King got from the crowd, especially the frenzy of the women in the audience. The next day Hunter went out and bought a guitar. That very week he put a band together and before long developed his own style, mixing swinging blues and razor sharp guitar playing reminiscent of fellow Texans Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown, with a definite nod towards B.B. King. Less than a year later, Hunter was headlining at the Raven Club, the very same place he first saw B.B.
Hunter's growing reputation spread to Houston, where Don Robey of Duke Records (home of Gatemouth Brown, Bobby Bland and Junior Parker) released Hunter's first single, Crazy Baby b/w She Used To Be My Woman, in 1954. The record didn't win Hunter a national audience, but it did generate enough interest to keep him working full time as a musician. Hunter headed for Houston in 1955 to try and capitalize on his Duke single. He played shows with Little Milton, Johnny Copeland and many others. Two years later, he moved west to El Paso. The very night Hunter arrived, he crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico and found work at the Lobby Bar where he stayed for the next 13 years. "If it didn't happen at the Lobby Bar," Long John often said, "it just didn't happen in life."
Releasing only a small number of 45s, Hunter didn't record a full album until 1993's Ride With Me(Spindletop, reissued by Alligator). He signed with Alligator in 1996. His label debut, Border Town Legend, brought his music and his story to the masses. With his 1997 follow-up Swingin' From The Rafters, Hunter went from being a locally revered Texas bluesman to being an internationally touring festival headliner. In 1999 he joined his old Beaumont friends Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker for the Texas rave-up CD, Lone Star Shootout. The Chicago Tribune said, "Hunter embodies Texas blues in all its varied, roustabout glory like no one on the scene today."
As his stature grew, so did his tour calendar. He played numerous high-profile concerts including The Chicago Blues Festival, South By Southwest, San Antonio Cultural Festival, Long Beach Blues Festival, as well as multiple tours of the U.S and Europe. Hunter continued to perform and record, releasing independent CDs in 2003 and 2009.
Hunter is survived by his wife Gayle and brother Tom.