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The two things I love most in amplified music are great voices and great ensemble playing and James Hunter’s People Gonna Talk (Rounder Records) offers both. It’s gratifying to see that the Essex-born soul stylist is now doing well in the USA.
Back around 1996 I took football journalist Joe Bernstein to see this singer at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, just after his Believe What I Say album came out on Ace Records. His voice really swings and his sweet, funky little band cruised through two sets of Fifties R&B : Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Bobby “Blue” Bland, a bunch of original songs in a roadhouse vein. He might be the blackest-sounding white singer these islands have produced since Stevie Winwood.
Joe loved the audience, which included teddy boys jiving beautifully with girls whose skirts flared out as they swivelled.
Before that James Hunter had made an album as Howlin’ Wilf and had played guitar and sung with Van Morrison, who duetted with him on two tracks, Turn On Your Love Light and Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.
Early in 2006 I read a comment he had made about going home late one night on a Network South East train where commuters were very tired or asleep, and somebody was playing a cassette of a Sam Cooke album, and nobody in the compartment objected. I knew what he was talking about because I’ve often been on that late train, coming home from gigs at the Town &Country Club/Forum.
Sam Cooke’s music is magically light and mellow, and James Hunter said that one day he wanted to make an album like that.
And now he has. Amazingly, producer Liam Watson recorded all these songs live, with Hunter singing along with the band, using old analogue equipment at Toe Rag studios, where the White Stripes made Elephant.
The warmth of the sound, the artistry of the vocals, the precision of horns that really play in the groove, are all fantastic. The title track even includes a string quartet.
Sure, James Hunter is a niche – and it’s a small niche. But his current success proves that if you persevere, the market can come to you.
I won’t describe each song, as you can hear clips streamed on www.jameshuntermusic.com.
MYLES PALMER lives in England, where he writes about music and soccer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org