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Did rock pioneer Bobby Fuller rip off El Paso blues giant Long John Hunter?

By Randy Matin

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Frank Sinatra said that the best revenge is massive success. Bluesman Long John Hunter will likely never achieve the same kind of notoriety, but at 67 he's at last achieved a modicum of respect. If you had grown up in Seattle and played in local bands during the mid-'60s, no doubt "Louie Louie" would have been part of your repertoire. But if you'd grown up in El Paso, Texas, during the same period your "Louie Louie" would have been Hunter's "El Paso Rock."

Miriam Linna, who specializes in reissuing vintage El Paso music on the Brooklyn-based Norton Record label describes the time as "a scene and sound all unto itself. El Paso turned to Buddy Holly for pop and Hunter for a pure shot of the blues. And it is safe to say that during the period, every local band played 'El Paso Rock' and every guitar player we've talked to [who grew up during that time in El Paso] cites Hunter as a major influence."

Hunter remembers being king of the airwaves for about 15 minutes and then being supplanted by another version of his song on the radio, "I don't know if it was Bobby Fuller or not," Hunter says. "I know some local band did it and got played all over for a long time. But I never received any money from it."

That's an old story, to be sure, but Linna is cautious not to point the finger at the late Fuller even though she is confident that it was Fuller whom Hunter heard on the radio. "I doubt that there are any monies to be collected," she says. "Even though Bobby was releasing singles on his own, tiny, Exeter label, he never put 'El Paso Rock' out as a single. It was a unique situation in El Paso with a teenage deejay that was big on Fuller and played a live version of the song over and over." That live version is, however, available on the Norton release El Paso Rock Vol. 1 from the Bobby Fuller Four.

Bryan Thomas, spokesperson for Del-Fi records, which re-released nearly all of Fuller's recordings in two CD box sets, could not find the title among Fuller's discography. Thomas notes, however, the booklet accompanying Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited states that "Still a minor, Bobby ... began sneaking out at night ... across the [Mexican] border to ... the Lobby Bar [in Juarez] where drunken brawls were part of the nightly entertainment. At the Lobby [Fuller] witnessed the on-stage antics of local blues legend Long John Hunter ... playing guitar with one hand while swinging from the club's low ceiling beams [and] eventually sat in with Hunter ... as one of the hottest young drummers in El Paso."

At the Lobby, in Juarez's red light district, Hunter developed his reputation for wild shows, playing seven days a week from 8 p.m. until sunrise for nearly 13 years with Mexican bartenders whom he trained to play drums and bass. The wild rep still hangs with Hunter today and serves as the title of his second Alligator release, Swingin From the Rafters. "I don't do that so much anymore," Hunter says. "Age and pounds has kinda changed that a bit. I was real young and pretty light, now I'm old and overweight. But I do have a few little things that I do on stage that work real good."

Among his trademark moves, Hunter plays with one hand while moving among the audience to press the flesh with his other. And he's got a gimmick he calls "gettin' itchy" where he rubs his guitar with one hand and scratches it with the other. "You gotta be kinda abnormal to have divided parts in your body," Hunter explains. "I'm not braggin' on myself. You'll have to see it to believe it."

Linna confirms the fire that still typifies Hunter's shows. "A group of us went to see him about six months ago at Manny's Car Wash [blues bar] in uptown Manhattan. We called for 'El Paso Rock' and 'Ride With Me Baby' and a lot of the songs from his early days. By the end of the evening people were dancing on the tables."

What originally drove Hunter south of the border was competition at radio. He recorded a string of singles, like Fuller, for the Yucca label, and was just starting to burn up local radio with "Crazy Baby." Two singles from those days, which were recorded in a four-track garage studio, appear updated on Swinging From the Rafters. It's Hunter now who sings on "I Don't Care" and "Stop What You're Doing" with his band Walking Catfish.

That name, Hunter finds, helped him attract more record company attention then his old handle Long John Hunter and the Untouchables. "I have it written on the side of our trailer and I tell you everywhere we stop for gas people ask what it means." Hunter says, "Usually they think we are selling catfish."

Alligator Records realized, however, that something more than catfish was on the burner when Hunter and manager Steve Jeter were shopping the Bordertown Legend album that became Hunter's 1996 Alligator debut. And, it was Alligator president Bruce Iglauer who suggested Hunter compose the "Walking Catfish" song that appears on Rafters. The Chicago-based label is also planning to re-issue Hunter's Ride With Me, which was released in Europe on Black Magic and had only a limited distribution in the states. Meanwhile, Norton will reissue an album of Hunter's material from the '60s.

Savoring the attention, Hunter still owes his inspiration to a single performance by B.B. King that his fellow box factory workers in Beaumont dragged him to a long time ago. "They begged me for three days to go see B.B. King. But I just wasn't gonna pay no dollar and a half to go see nobody. So a guy paid it for me," Hunter says, "and that was the best dollar and a half I never spent in my life."

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