As an open-eared English lad growing up in Essex, James Hunter grew accustomed to sounds from another land. Like so many of his countrymen, he became enamored of American rhythm and blues, eventually using it as a touchstone to the music he would soon create.
“I read an article in a magazine about (Drifters founder) Clyde McPhatter,” Hunter said by phone from his home in Brighton. “He became my favorite singer just through the description. But you couldn’t find a lot of the records by those singers. Labels here just weren’t putting out that stuff. But there were a lot of reissues coming out on these bootleg labels. Suddenly, I found a shop in Southend-on-Sea in Essex that had these old singles of Clyde with the Drifters and the voice lived up to what I had read. Today, of course, you can find stuff on YouTube. It’s great something like that can now make this music so accessible. It just takes a little bit of discovery.”
It has taken the best part of three decades for worldwide audiences to fully discover the English-reared but American-born soul sound that Hunter has made his own. On his new Hold On!, the second album credited to the James Hunter Six (although many of the band’s members have been with the singer for 20 years or more), vintage soul inspirations manifest in a variety of ways. On This is Where We Came In, he sings like Sam Cooke over a bossa beat. During A Closer Heart, a young Wilson Pickett singing over a Del Shannon groove comes to mind. For the single (Baby) Hold On, a brassy, percolating riff sustains an animated car chase tempo that Hunter sings over with ample gusto and brief blasts of a piercing falsetto.
All 10 of the album’s retro-inclined tunes are Hunter originals. But in many ways, the catalyst of the sessions is producer Bosco Mann, head of the celebrated Daptone label and bassist/producer for one of its most prominent acts, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
“We worked with him previously on the album before this (2013’s Minute by Minute) before we signed with Daptone,” Hunter said. “Up to that time, that was the best we’ve ever sounded, largely because of the sound he gets. I’m still writing the horn parts on the new record with help from the horn players in my band, so the basic arrangement is mine. But the little flourishes he puts in end up being quite integral to the record — just things like mic placement. They’re invaluable. Everything he does to our stuff really improves it.”
If Mann represents a current generation of soul revivalists that have helped bolster Hunter’s newest music, a true soul/pop elder helped the singer in his formative years. At the dawn of the 1990s, Hunter’s singing caught the attention of Van Morrison, who recruited him for touring work and, eventually, guest spots on two albums — 1994’s concert outing A Night in San Francisco and the 1995 studio set The Healing Game.
Morrison returned the favor by helping out on Hunter’s 1996 debut record, Believe What I Say.
“I met Van in Wales,” Hunter said. “We were playing in 1990 or so and met through a mutual friend. We got to talking about music and soon got started on some shows that were quite a lot of fun. We rehearsed about 30 tunes — a mixture of his stuff and Bobby Bland covers and then took it on the road. It was a little nerve-wracking, though, as the first live appearance was backing him on television. It was the Belfast Telegraph Awards in ’91. That was the first time we ever stood on a stage with Van. I saw him at breakfast that morning and said he was going to have a tuxedo for the occasion. Then he said, I thought jokingly, ‘I’ve got tuxedos for you guys, too.’ So we all went out there on TV looking like penguins.
“Today, we get people at our shows who see themselves as kinds of experts in this genre of music. But it’s always more refreshing when somebody comes along and goes, ‘I don’t know what the hell that was you were playing, but I enjoyed it.’”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.