After toiling away in the U.K. and Europe for the better part of two decades, London-based soul singer James Hunter finally made some significant inroads in America last year. That would seem quite a long-awaited milestone for a kid raised on '50s and early-'60s R&B. How does it feel to finally gain some acceptance in the birthplace of the music he so dearly loves?
"Better than lurking on a street corner back in London," Hunter chirps in a thick English accent. During our 20-minute chat, he's very much the cheeky Brit, operating mostly in witty sound bites. It doesn't help that Hunter answers his cellphone having completely forgotten our appointed interview time and, worse, is sitting in an airport somewhere in North America waiting to board a flight.
But we forge on.
How've you been received by American audiences?
"We always seem to go down quite well. We didn't go down quite so well in a venue in Atlantic City when we were supporting a well-known blues player, and we were ignored by the blues Nazis," he says, referring to ardent purists who have no ears for much other than Chicago or Delta blues.
Would that well-known blues player be Buddy Guy?
Hunter pauses, hesitant to answer. "Yeah," he replies after a bit. "Nothing against him. It was the crowd."
Hunter will be among the 15 acts performing at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, which in its early years featured a succession of Chicago-influenced Strat-slingers and drew more than its share of blues Nazis. That's changed over time to feature a broader survey of the blues; thus Hunter can expect to be graciously received.
It won't hurt that he's a formidable talent. His voice is most often a velvety croon, tonally a cross between Sam Cooke and Boz Scaggs. He employs a well-calibrated intensity, tending more toward cool than hot, but peppering his phrases with a judicious array of bluesy punctuations, making each one count. His mastery is best heard on People Gonna Talk, released on Rounder last year, a lovingly retro set of a dozen Hunter originals that harks back, both musically and lyrically, to more innocent times. Along with plenty of Jackie Wilson/Sam Cooke pop-soul, the CD contains dollops of New Orleans rhumba, some loping swing and even a bit of funk reminiscent of James Brown (if the Godfather backed off the accelerator a bit).
Hunter also plays guitar in a stinging staccato style noted for its economy and lack of reliance on showy chops. On People Gonna Talk, his two sax players get as much solo space as he does (when they're not laying down punchy riffs). Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the disc, though, is that Hunter wrote every bit of every tune. It would seem no easy task to pen a new song in an old style without blatantly copying the old songs. "I haven't got a concept to it," he explains (or not). "It's the kind of stuff I always liked and listened to, and that's just how it comes out when I write it."
Something else that's fairly remarkable: Hunter, who's 43, wrote his first tune at 24 and didn't take up music in any serious way until age 20. He grew up in Colchester, 50 miles east of London. For a few months when he was 9, James, his brother, mother and father crammed into a mobile home located in an onion field. To pass the time, James would listen to some old 78-rpm vinyl given to him by his grandmother. He wore Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite" to the nub. It was the early '70s, and the youngster turned a deaf ear to the English glam-rock that surrounded him. He looked a bit more favorably on late '70s punk. "I liked the attitude more than the music," he says, "although I did rather like the [Sex] Pistols."
Hunter left school and took a job as a railway man. A signal technician, he spent "most of me time digging holes. I became very adept at it." Turning to music did not come in the form of an epiphany. "I just sort of drifted into it," he says. "Actually, it was more like drifting away from full-time employment. I was making a living at [music] by the time I was 24. I met some musicians in London."
In the early '90s, Hunter drew the attention of Van Morrison, who enlisted the up-and-comer to open some shows and appear on a couple of albums. Morrison has called Hunter "one of the best voices and best kept secrets in British R&B and soul."
For a time, Hunter went by Howlin' Wilf while gigging and busking around London, but shed that gimmicky moniker.
When did you decide to start a solo career?
Well, at some point you went from being a frontman in a band to James Hunter, solo artist.
"There's no distinction. I'm just a frontman in a band, same then as I am now."
Hunter leads a six-piece band that includes tenor and baritone saxophone, acoustic bass, drums and keyboards. It's effectively the same instrumentation as People Gonna Talk. And that's fitting, because the album was cut completely live — sans headphones or overdubs or isolation booths — with all analog equipment, much of it vintage. Two songs even feature a string trio, which performed in the same room with the band.
Such an endeavor would scare the bejesus out of most contemporary pop acts, but Hunter sees it as "the easy way." The sessions took two weeks, and some of the songs required quite a few takes. "There's that whole thing about not being able to fix it," he says, referring to the absence of overdubs and computer editing. "There's more incentive. It's more challenging, more fun. You haven't got the safety net."