The English have a long and storied relationship with American rock, rhythm and blues. In the '60s, of course, acts like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things went so crazy for imported vinyl that they turned stateside sounds into a whole new weapon in their eager, guitar-clutching paws. Soul singer James Hunter says there may be a very prosaic explanation for this.
"People like the Beatles had an almost direct reason to get into it, because they lived in seaports," he explains. "Merchant seamen used to bring stacks of records as ballast, and when they got to port, they just gave them out. And those cats put them to better use when they arrived. I just heard that recently from my bass player's brother-in-law. I don't know if it's true."
Growing up in landlocked Colchester, England, in the '60s and '70s, the 42-year-old Hunter had no docking ships to collect ballast from, but he remembers latching on to the sounds of American rhythm and blues acts early on. "My brother was into prog-rock, and I was into Jackie Wilson and the Drifters. I couldn't tell you why. It just had a directness that appealed to me."
Hunter is about to land in New Orleans as part of a briskly paced tour in support of his latest album, People Gonna Talk (Rounder), a phenomenon that marks him as the prototypical twenty-years-in-the-making overnight sensation. He's been playing vintage soul music for nearly two decades under the pseudonym Howlin' Wilf and the Vee-Jays, mostly in England, and released two well-received full-length albums in the '90s -- one on Ace, a British reissue label specializing in soul, funk and blues, and one on a German label. But it was just in 2006 that People Gonna Talk, recorded with the same band he's been playing with since the '80s, was picked up for distribution by the sprawling, eclectic roots label Rounder. Now his CD is for sale at Starbucks.
"We did a lot of touring in Germany, and then things got a bit quiet," Hunter says of the '90s. "We were still a going concern, though, with gigs every now and then, and then we got picked up by Go [the label that produced the CD] and Rounder." Honing his sound over the years, Hunter began to focus solely on original material, dropping the covers that had been sprinkled over the first two releases; not to mention his pseudonym.
"People didn't think the joke was very funny," he admits. "Or they didn't get it. And people who did get it expected a kind of a straight blues thing."
What they get, instead, is butter-smooth uptown soul that sounds like a lost Solomon Burke recording; sweet, hot and slick. On the record, the horns are tight, with an upbeat Stax Records bleat that's a joy to hear; their restrained energy is addictive. And they play off of Hunter's warm, soul-balladeer vocals with a synergy that sounds like it was taken from a time capsule. The overall sound, while impeccably authentic, stops short of nostalgia; it's too genuine for that. Hunter packs a lot of emotion into his voice, which is one of the things that stops the sound from being a reproduction -- he's unavoidably present. The grapevine even says that legendary industry-figure Allen Toussaint, who shared a stage with Hunter at the recent Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, is a converted fan.
Derek Houston, a New Orleans resident who plays tenor saxophone for the Iguanas, signed on just last week for the baritone sax spot in Hunter's American touring band -- (his English band, which recorded People Gonna Talk, will not be touring, apparently, because of both visa- and expense-related problems) and he's stoked.
"I watched some live footage of the band on YouTube, and watching it just got me really excited." Houston says. "He just goes wild live with that guitar; it's way more unhinged than the record. A friend of mine saw him live in New York and said that sitting on the bus waiting to play was going to be like playing baseball, and sitting in the dugout before a game, just knowing you're going to win. And, of course, I want to feel like that."
"Some people would consider it a retro sound," Houston continues, "but I'm just glad someone's making that music. This guy is the real deal. As a musician and as a music fan, I'm excited about it."
As for Hunter, he doesn't think too much about what label is being put on his sound. "I've always been fond of my own thing, and not took any notice of the current thing," he says. "I just follow my nose, really. I figure it's a safe bet to keep on doing what I like."
- Harry Benson
- One-man British Invasion James Hunter sets out on an American tour with his American rhythm-and-blues- inspired soul sound.