James Hunter Six

To most listeners, James Hunter is a throwback. A modern singer who unapologetically embraces the R&B sounds of the 50s and early 60s, he’s developed a sizeable following in the UK for his brand of authentic soul music, which he is now bringing to the US amid a good amount of buzz.

The Colchester, England native was introduced to R&B as a child when his grandmother gave him an old gramophone, complete with a stack of 1950’s R&B 78s. Hearing artists such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke helped Hunter to develop an appreciation for the transition from regional music to the more urban Rock and Soul sounds that was occurring a half century ago.

As an adult Hunter followed his childhood love, playing traditional R&B music across Europe. He found a fan in legendary singer Van Morrison, and ended up touring with him on both sides of the Atlantic. Morrison returned the favor by singing on Hunter’s 1996 debut album, Believe What I Say, which received favorable reviews throughout Europe.

While most label Hunter’s sound as retro, he has a different take on it: “I feel this music is as relevant for people today as it would’ve been 40 years ago,” he explains. “It has a groove that makes people feel good-it makes girls want to dance. What’s retro or old-sounding about that?”

In 2005, Hunter signed with GO/Rounder Records and began working on his biggest international release, People Gonna Talk, with producer Liam Watson (the White Stripes). In order to capture Hunter’s authentic R&B sound, Watson painstakingly sought out old analog recording equipment and recorded the album “live.” In fact, other than the lack of hiss and pops, it is virtually impossible to distinguish People Gonna Talk from an album recorded circa 1962.

While Hunter proclaims that his work isn’t “retro,” there was an almost unnervingly nostalgic feel to People Gonna Talk. Elements of 50s and early 60s R&B greats emerge throughout the disc, but the influence of Sam Cooke was most omnipresent. And Hunter’s attractive vocals, sounding like a gutsier marriage of Boz Scaggs and Johnny Rivers, worked well throughout. 

The success of People Gonna Talk virtually opened up America to Hunter, who toured regularly in the US over the next two years.  He and Watson then began working on his follow up disc, The Hard Way, signing with Starbucks’ HearMusic label in the US and issuing the disc in mid-2008.  The album used more modern recording techniques, but still achieved an authentic “old school” sound. And while nothing on the disc was as instantly appealing as “People Gonna Talk” and “Mollena” from the prior disc, it was another solid outing that should find a welcoming audience. 

It’s been 20 years since Rockabilly music had a rebirth in the US and UK, but early R&B has not enjoyed such a resurgence. Well, James Hunter, along with artists such as Amy Winehouse and Ryan Shaw, makes a convincing statement that it should. At a time when radio is spewing a fair amount of anti-music, there’s a lot of appeal to a disc that basks in engaging tunes, soulful vocals and the simple arrangements of guitar, bass, saxophone and drums. It’s not so much a step back as a reminder of the foundation of arguably the greatest music of the last half century. And a welcome reminder it is.

By Chris Rizik


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