James Hunter sings that sweet soul music. And once again, a decidedly American music form, forsaken by American artists for whatever flavor of the year, is picked up by a British artist who turns around and frankly does it better.
"We go into it more," Hunter says of his country's obsession with and devotion to American music. Just listen to British pop artists like Alyson Moyet, Simply Red, Rick Astley, or Boy George --- they are all to a greater or lesser extent soul singers. "It's more exotic to us, you see. With Americans it's too close. It's easy to overlook," he says.
Hunter's music has soul's mood, tone and swagger, its tight, deliberate beat, and punchy horns; that's what'll fill dance floors. His smoky voice is casually charming and elegant, a Romeo growl with remnants of a purr still in it; that's what'll break hearts. But it's his knack for clever songwriting that will make Hunter an unforgettable, a 21st century soul man.
He's already outgrowing the little joints he plays now. Catch him while you can, as he comes through town next week at Montage Live.
When the Colchester, England, native opens his mouth, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, or even Harry Belafonte come to mind. He first got hip to Wilson through a stack of 78s he got from his grandma.
"She's pretty hip, you know?" he says on the phone while cooling his heels in Philadelphia. "She was more hip than me uncles. They were into Eddie Calvert."
Flash forward: It's 2006 and Hunter is a nouveau soul sensation on the scene with a new record, People Gonna Talk. This time around it's Hunter crooning creamy and smooth like his heroes. It's sexy, sultry, and cool. And with Hunter getting ink in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, as well as appearing on NPR and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, it's catching on. According to Tom Kohn, owner of local record store The Bop Shop, all he has to do is play People Gonna Talk in the store and it's sold.
It may seem like Hunter is an overnight phenomenon, but the 43-year-old musician has actually been riding the soul train for years. He started working on the railway and busking the blues in the streets before making the leap for London --- and a full-time music career --- in 1986. There he founded Howlin' Wilf and the Vee Jays, a raucous jump-blues/r&b outfit with Hunter howlin' and blowin' on the harp.
"It was a little bit less original," he says. "Though I was writing me own songs."
Four records, some national TV exposure, and the band eventually dissolved. Hunter began to gravitate further toward soul.
Soon Van Morrison caught wind of Hunter's sound. "We played a place called The King's Hotel in Newport in Wales," he recalls. "The owner of the place is a mate of Van's and on his recommendation Van came along to see us." Morrison picked up the whole band to work with him initially before settling on Hunter ala carte. Hunter was a little oblivious at first.
"I knew vaguely of him," Hunter says. "I was only very slightly familiar with his output at the time. When we were rehearsing and he'd name a certain song, I'd go 'Oh, is that one yours?' I did like to wind him up a lot, but that was genuine. I ended up doing more of a guest spot with him. I'd walk on and do a coupla verses of 'It's A Man's World' or anything that was Bobby Bland or Ray Charles or James Brown. I'd get up for that and as soon as 'Moondance' came on I'd piss off."
Hunter released his first solo album, Believe What I Say, on Ace Records in 1996. Morrison and the late Doris Troy appeared as guests. Kick It Around came out on Ruf Records in 1999. The album smoldered with a classic soul burn and yet Hunter remained relatively unknown outside the U.K.
Steve Erdman had heard Hunter years ago when Hunter was playing on the streets of London. He instantly became a fan. When Erdman brought Hunter over to the States for a private party he expressed surprise that a major label had yet to snatch him up. Erdman and partner Kimberly Guise formed Go Records solely for the purpose of releasing Hunter's work.
"It's quite flattering," Hunter says. "It's a change from people dissolving a record company because I've joined."
Go partnered up with Rounder Records for People Gonna Talk. It was released March 7 of this year and is an amazing record front to back. Fourteen original cuts have Hunter singing and oozing laid-back cool over his band's shuffles, backbeats, and sweet, sweet horns. It's classic soul instrumentation with vintage beauty. It's cocky and brash, but there's still a healthy dose of want, need, and gotta have. You'd swear it was recorded in 1966. Yet Hunter's band keeps it in the now, spicing it up subtly with splashes of ska and calypso. Hunter's guitar has a simple understated elegance that comes in bright, tight, and twangy, complements the proceedings, then splits.
In keeping with his vintage approach, People Gonna Talk was cut analogue and live in the studio. "Yeah, that's best," he says. "There's less fuss. People say it must be hard doing takes --- it is harder to do it all in one go, live --- but we found it easier if you're there in the same room and you're feeling off what each other is doing. You're less prone to make the mistakes anyway. You're gonna get a good take 'cause you get the same feeling you do when you're really doin' it."
Besides, standard studio practices restrict him.
"I find it very difficult to get on with headphones," he says. "Something happens to me vocal range."
Even though Hunter's tunes sound swell under this royal retro treatment, they easily stand on their own. Hunter's clever turn of phrase remains light-hearted amidst the music's soul-searing drive and melody.
"Now baby, I aim to please and I always will/ If you just keep the target still," he sings on "You Can't Win." You see, Hunter's got a formula.
"You've got your basic theme," he says. "In this instance obviously it was every phrase I could think of to describe a no-win situation. I was quite proud of that one."
Hunter is pushing the new disc hard on the road and wherever he can. "We just sorta hit them everywhere we can," he says. "I'll just go with it as far as it will go."
And it seems everywhere he goes, folks are ready for his blue-eyed soul. Except Hunter's eyes ain't blue.
"No, they're greenish," he says. "Which is in keeping with my envy of people with voices like Jackie Wilson's."
James Hunter plays Thursday, April 13, at Montage Live, 50 Chestnut Street, 232-1520, at 8 p.m. $10-$12. 21+. www.montagegrille.com