James Hunter is the UK’s best kept soul secret. Not so in the States, though, where he’s been Grammy nominated, had two R&B no. 1 albums and worked with people like Junior Wells, Aretha Franklin and Allen Toussaint. Not bad for an Essex boy who left school at 16 to work as a fitter on railway signal boxes! From there his musical career includes spells as a busker, pushing an alter-ego called Howling Wilf (Howling Wolf was a big inspiration) and providing backing vocals for Van Morrison. After some underground success, his career dipped at the start of the new millennium but in 2006 he bounced back with ‘People Gonna Talk’. The album was a unique amalgam of Hunter’s take on soul, blues and funk and America took it to its heart. Critics compared the world-weary vocals with Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and the set went to the top of the R&B charts. The follow uo, 2008’s ‘The Hard Way’ was similarly successful. James Hunter, at last, had arrived. Sadly though, as he began work on his third full album, tragedy struck. His wife died of cancer and the new set, obviously, was put on hold.
Now, though, James Hunter is back and sounding as good as ever. If anything ‘Minute By Minute’ – produced by Dap-Tone head honcho, Gabe Roth, is stronger than his last two excellent albums. This new 12 tracker is much more complete… with a grittier, sparser, funkier underlying sound, it’s like Sam Cooke meets James Brown. If that sounds like an odd cocktail, then try ‘Drop On Me’…. elements of ‘Another Saturday Night’ and ‘Out Of Sight’ make it a truly intoxicating mix. There’s more of that gritty sparseness on ‘Chicken Switch’, ‘Minute By Minute’, ‘Nothin’ I Wouldn’t Do’, and ‘Look Out’ while on ‘The Gypsy’ there’s a kind of Bo Diddley/Johnny Otis thing going on. The set also boasts a fabulous Motown/Northern soul pastiche. ‘One Way Love’ (not the Drifters’ song, by the way) succeeds where other similar ventures by lesser artists fail because Hunter and Roth totally understand, respect and love the genre. It’s an infectious and joyous three minutes with tinkling vibes that could be dear old Jack Ashford.
There’s plenty for the more sedate too. My standout is the amazingly simple ‘Let The Monkey Roll’. A gently swayer of a song, Curtis Mayfield would have been proud of it … and check out the Billy Stewart ‘Sitting In The Park’ style guitar. ‘So They Say’ is almost as lovely while ‘If I Only Knew’ will make you understand why US critics drew comparisons with Sam Cooke.
Throughout, James is supported by his usual crew – Lee Badau (baritone sax), Damian Hand (tenor sax), Jonathan Lee (drums), Jason Wilson (bass) and Kyle Kehler and Andrew Kingslow (percussion/keyboards). It’s patiently clear that they, Hunter and Roth love what they’re doing. ‘Minute By Minute’ (dedicated to his Hunter’s late wife) is a labour of love in more ways than one. It comes highly recommended.