James Hunter: The Road To Glory

It was a situation crying out for the blues treatment. When James Hunter was nine years old, his family found themselves living in a caravan in an onion field on the outskirts of Colchester, Essex. “It’s true,” he chuckles today, “It was only temporary, but I grew up in that caravan. There wasn’t a lot to do, I was starved of entertainment, so my grandma gave me an old Dansette and some 78s to play on it. Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite was one of them, I heard it and it gave me the taste.” You can hear Jackie Wilson’s birth of soul approach in James Hunter’s work – six albums spanning 1996’s …Believe What I Say on Ace Records to this year’s Hold On! on Daptone, plus a seventh, Cry Wilf! issued in 1986 on Big Beat! under the name Howlin’ Wilf & The Vee-Jays. Yet despite proudly wearing his influences on his sleeve – chief ones are Lowman Pauling, Sam Cooke, T-Bone Walker and Ray Charles – he’s very much his own man, an indelible part of the new soul and blues vanguard and now the Daptone label, joining Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, Saun & Starr, Naomi Shelton And The Gospel Queens and Charles Bradley on the roster.

The Blues Magazine meets Hunter on a sunny but chilly winter’s afternoon at the Metrodeco, a glamorous tea room decorated in 30s New York and Paris gold and black, situated in Kemptown, Brighton. A regular, Hunter props his push bike outside then, after ordering his “usual” – a black coffee – he takes a seat. Casually attired in black T-shirt, jeans and navy blue Harrington jacket, he begins with an apology. One of his dogs is unwell and at the vet and he’s waiting to hear if she’s going to be okay; he asks if we can do the interview quickly so he can go and see her. As it turns out, he gets a call a few minutes later, relief visibly floods across his face – she’s been given a clean bill of health. Hunter can often be seen with his dogs – he has two, Sugar and Honey, both Yorkshire terriers – in Brighton, his home for the last three-and-a-half years. When he’s not walking them, they’ll be sitting in a basket on his bike’s handlebars.

Back in Metrodeco, his shoulders drop, he takes a sip of his coffee and over the next hour, he proves himself a jocular conversationalist, reminiscences peppered with colourful stories of John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Allen Toussaint and many more. Of course, little did he know when he first heard their records, he’d one day be hailed an R&B sensation too.

Hunter’s journey to success hasn’t been easy. Born in Colchester, Essex in October 1962 as Neil James Huntsman, an early attempt at acting led to him taking the role of The Big Bopper in a stage production of The Buddy Holly Story. “I fancied myself as the next Lee Marvin,” he says. But music was always his first love: “I started playing guitar at 14, my brother taught me my first couple of chords and a few tunes and I was away.” At 16, he left school to work on the railway. “I was mending signal boxes. A colleague working there, he was a friend of a friend, he introduced me to a whole load of stuff. He’d run into Howlin’ Wolf at a university show. Wolf was sat at the bar, he went up to him, they got talking and Wolf told him to look him up if he was ever in Chicago. In the 70s he went over there, hung out with him and Sunnyland Slim. Chicago was a scary place back then, he got hate stares for being the only white man on the tube. Anyway he gave me a load of his old records and told me a lot of stories and after my grandma’s 78s, that piqued my interest too.”

He formed his first trio, playing his first gig aged 22 at Colchester Labour Club. Soon after, he sent a demo to Ted Carroll who ran Rock On, a record shop in Camden. “He played it to some musicians he knew, Dot and Tony [aka T Box Tone], who played guitar and double bass,” he says. “They liked it and got in touch and from then on every Friday after working on the railway, I’d pack a little suitcase and go up to London to see them. We learned a few tunes and we’d go busking on the Saturday. At that time, there was a scene in Camden and I was meeting people who had the same taste in music as me, which I’d never realised before. There were other people listening to old blues and R&B and soul, it was amazing, and I was revelling in it. We were making up to £40 on a good day – of course we then blew it all in the record shop. Rock On was great, in Colchester we had Parrot Records, which had everything from T-Bone Walker to [punk band] 999, but Rock On was really something.” Calling themselves Howlin’ Wilf And The Vee-Jays, after the fab Chicago blues, R&B and soul label, and with Stilts McGregor joining them on drums, they played the London pub circuit, before entering the studio to record 1986’s Cry Wilf! with producer Boz Boorer, formerly of the Polecats, and currently a member of Morrissey’s band. The album presaged what he’s doing now, comprising a mix of originals that could easily pass off as previously unearthed treasures by Lee Dorsey, Georgie Fame and Jackie Edwards, and intuitive covers, in this case sublime readings of Barbara Lewis’ Hello Stranger and Little Walter’s Mellow Down Easy.

With such a great album to their name, a growing live following and an appearance on Channel 4’s music TV show The Tube, Howlin’ Wilf And The Vee-Jays should by rights have crossed over – and yet it never quite happened for them. “It was a nice moment, at one point it looked like we were going to be in a bidding war between Chrysalis and Go! Discs,” says Hunter. “It fizzled out though, we sat through archetypal business meetings, but nothing happened.”

In 1988, they met Steve Erdman at the Plough pub in Stockwell. He became Hunter’s manager and in 1989 booked them a tour of the US. “It was a crack,” Hunter says. “It just about broke even and it was the first time I’d been to the USA. We flew to JFK and got the bus to 42nd Street in New York, and I looked out of the window and it was total Taxi Driver out there. I was scared to get off.”

In 1990, tipped off by a fan, Van Morrison watched Hunter and band perform in south Wales. Impressed, Morrison asked him to provide background vocals at the Belfast Telegraph Awards in 1991.

“I was performing at the Kings Hotel in Newport. It was owned by this fellow called Mac, he knew Van Morrison, he invited him to see us. We got talking about music, and him and Mac were going on and on about Jerry Lee Lewis to the point I was starting to get fed up about hearing about Jerry Lee. But he asked me to join him on tour, sing backing vocals with his band.”

Take it to the bridge: Hunter and his band.

Take it to the bridge: Hunter and his band.

Hunter accompanies Morrison on 1994’s live set A Night In San Francisco and 1995’s Days Like These studio album. Doing the tour, meanwhile, he got to share a stage with Georgie Fame and John Lee Hooker. Afterwards, Hooker invited him to a house party he was about to host. “There were all these kids playing 78s on a Dansette player,” says Hunter. “One put on this Charles Brown thing and Hooker looked up from the table and drawled: ‘Who put this shit on?’ I got talking to a US Air Force bloke there who was reminiscing about being stationed in Sudbury in Suffolk during the war. I’d come all the way to San Francisco to hear about Sudbury! Georgie Fame and I always talked about films, Blackboard Jungle and The Hill, the Sidney Lumet film. He told me that when he was playing with Big Jim Sullivan and backing Eddie Cochran in 1960, they arrived at the police station in Wiltshire when the accident had just happened [Cochran was killed on April 17 1960 after a car crash outside Chippenham] and he was greeted with the poignant image of Eddie’s Gretsch sitting on a chair at the station.”

Morrison then returned the favour, guesting on Hunter’s 1996 debut album, …Believe What I Say, which, after being demoed with Liam Watson at London’s Toe Rag studio, was recorded in Islington. Doris Troy appears on the record too. Then a fixture on the London jazz scene, the soul singer who had hit big with 1963’s Just One Look sings in perfect harmony with Hunter on the duet Hear Me Calling. “We got her through a mutual friend,” he says. “She was great in the studio and then I went to her flat – we discussed doing future stuff, but it never happened.”

As for Van Morrison: “We asked him if he’d do it. He said yeah, but the thing was, he did the Royal Albert Hall with Ray Charles the night before. He’d obviously been on the sauce with Ray, he came over in a shocking state. He was tired, but he was really anxious to get in on time and do a good job for us, which he did. Watching him work at close quarters was fascinating. I was struck by his voice. He has a built-in compressor, he sings at a consistent level of volume. His quiet notes go just as high as his loud ones, and that really stuck with me.”

Hunter pays his own tribute to Ray Charles on …Believe What I Say with a rousing rendition of Hallelujah I Love Her So, while Morrison joins him on covers of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s Turn On Your Love Light and Ain’t Nothing You Can Do, which sound so natural and effortless, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were scribed with Hunter in mind.

The 1999 follow-up, Kick It Around, was produced by Boz Boorer and issued by Ruf Records, and was equally promising, comprising top-notch vintage soul. But by 2003, Hunter had resorted to working on a building site and was back on the streets busking to make ends meet.

“Our gig bookings had slowed, so I did labouring for an agency. They really treated you badly, they took as much from you as they could, but it was keeping me afloat. Then one day I got a gig out of town, we started out, but halfway there we got a call, the bastards had cancelled it at the last minute. Me and the bassist, we were all fired up for playing so we went to the 12 Bar [Denmark Street, London] to try and salvage the situation. We asked if they wanted us to play, they did, and we went down well. They even paid us and it was at that moment I decided to leave labouring to go busking every night on Old Compton Street, and pretty soon I was earning twice as much as I was labouring. It was a dark time for me, but the music was good.”

Hunter kept performing and writing with a third album of material ready to go, but no industry interest – until Steve Erdman founded a label for its release. People Gonna Talk was picked up by Rounder and unexpectedly broke him in the UK and US, hitting No.1 in the US Billboard blues chart. Produced by Liam Watson at Toe Rag, it’s a potent distillation of golden age soul from the sublime balladry of Mollena and the soul jazz swing of Riot In My Heart to the smooth yet gospel-infused inflection of the title track. “Liam did a good job of getting our sound, we definitely sounded more like we were supposed to than on the previous two records. The drums sounded like real drums and we sounded as good as we were at that point.”

Its success led to support slots with Aretha Franklin and Etta James in the US and a Grammy Award nomination.

“We were on the same bill in Atlanta one time,” says Hunter of Etta James. “I went out after our set and did some signing, and when I tried to get back in to the backstage area, the only way I could see to get there was to jump up on stage and go through the curtain. She was there in her wheelchair surrounded by her entourage. I said: ‘Oh, hello,’ because that’s the way I was brought up, to say hello if you meet anyone, and I continued walking, and it was a bit like a Hammer horror film. I felt this coldness grip the back of my neck, and I glanced round, and her and all the people behind her were just glaring at me.”

To this day, Hunter is more acclaimed in the US than the UK. “I think it’s the novelty of someone English doing the American idiom with authenticity, it appeals to them, I guess like in the 60s with the Stones. I like to think that I’m not retro, I’m not slavishly copying, but I think at that time I was and probably still am just trying to nick from all of my influences and make something unusual and different out of them.”

London Calling: Hunter learned his stagecraft busking.

London Calling: Hunter learned his stagecraft busking.

The Hard Way from 2008, again produced by Liam Watson, built on People Gonna Talk’s sound and success and featured a guest spot by Allen Toussaint. “If I had to pick one person I’d have liked to have worked with, it was him. He was practically the in-house songwriter for New Orleans in much the same way Curtis Mayfield was for Chicago and Smokey Robinson was for Detroit. Elegance and economy aren’t often used in the same sentence, but both qualities informed his playing and, as I discovered after I got to know him, through his conversation. He always played or said just enough and no more, but he made his point more eloquently than anyone I have ever met.”

Toussaint first saw Hunter play a solo show at Joe’s Pub in New York. Having been uprooted from New Orleans after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina destroyed both his home and studio, Toussaint relocated to the Big Apple and took up a musical residency at the bar, just him and a piano. “We didn’t talk that time but then we got introduced at the Grand Ole Opry,” Hunter takes up the story. “My first impressions were that he was a really nice guy and that’s exactly what he was. We then heard he’d recommended us on the radio and we took that as the go-ahead to pester him into playing with us. It wasn’t that hard to convince him to play the piano, but it took a lot of persuasion to get him to sing. It turned out he didn’t like his voice as much as I did.”

To get around the problem, Toussaint double-tracked his voice over Hunter’s, although he joined the group in the studio to play the piano for them, cutting live.

Hunter’s fifth album, 2013’s Minute By Minute, meanwhile, was also recorded live in analogue at producer Gabe Roth’s Riverside, California, studio Daptone West. Roth, of course, runs the Daptone label, plays bass with the Dap-Kings and is famed for his work with Amy Winehouse.

While Minute By Minute is still unmistakably Hunter, Roth has steered the singer towards a grittier, funkier and tougher sound. “We’ve caught up to the mid-60s,” he chuckles. “It’s not a contrived thing, it was just the way my mind was going stylistically, but working with Gabe really opened our ears, because he demystifies the production process. Some producers don’t want to tell you stuff, but he tells you how it’s really all about mic placement and moving frequencies out of each other’s way. It’s as simple as getting a keyboard player to move up an octave to keep out of the way of the bassist. Unfortunately though, we went straight out to LA, recorded, then toured, and it killed us. With Hold On!, we went on tour first, got warmed up and over the jetlag, so we were firing on all cylinders when it came time to get down to the recording.”

New album Hold On! is undoubtedly Hunter’s most accomplished album to date; and it really is an ace listen. Produced once again by Gabe Roth at Daptone West, it’s Hunter’s first to be issued on the Daptone label.

“Which is really exciting,” he says. “Daptone feels like a proper home for us. It’s not so much that me and Gabe are like-minded, more that he knows what I’m thinking, which is enough [laughs]. The studio gets a great sound, too. It’s housed in a building built in 1901, it’s a really scruffy space. The live room is like a big warehouse, and Gabe prefers it to Daptone’s original House Of Soul studio in Brooklyn, he thinks he gets a better horn sound there in comparison to the House Of Soul.”

Once more, Roth opened Hunter’s ears to new ways – it was his idea for the breakdown in Free Your Mind, a fervid boogaloo and one of the album’s standout tracks. “We’d never done one of those before,” Hunter says. “Gabe coached us a lot. He spent a lot of time with Andy [Kingslow], our keyboardist and percussionist. I then spent a lot of time sitting in the corner sulking because I wasn’t getting all the attention!”

It’s unlikely Hunter will be sulking again any time soon as Hold On! should garner him the popular acclaim and attention he so rightly deserves. “And if it doesn’t,” he says casually, “Well, I’ll just keep on keeping on.” ✰

Hold On! is out now on Daptone.