Put on a James Hunter record and you are instantly transported to a different era. Instead of tattoo sleeves, men wore sharkskin suits and Cuban heels. Women had bouffant hairdos rather than tramp stamps. Cadillacs had fins and Lincoln Continentals had suicide doors. Tight Rhythm & Blues combos packed sweaty clubs and louche lounges.
Born in 1962, James Hunter grew up in Colchester Essex, England. Glam and Grunge and Punk seemed to pass him by, especially after his Grandmother gave him a collection of vintage 78s. Hunter took his inspiration from Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Bobby “Blue” Bland. From Ska and Blue Beat and Northern Soul.
His first band, (whimsically named) Howlin’ Wilf And The Veejays got their start in 1986. They originally concentrated on covering Soul and R & B nuggets from the late 50s and early 60s. Their energetic shows packed the clubs and the band came to the attention of Van Morrison. Van The Man labeled Hunter “One of the best voices and best kept secrets in British R & B and Soul.”
The band split up and Hunter actually spent a few years playing and touring in Van Morrison’s band. In fact, he is featured on the albums A Night In San Francisco and Days Like These.
Hunter released a couple of solo albums in England, Believe What I Say in 1996 and Kick It Around in 1999. Both were a mixture of originals and cover songs. Neither were very successful.
Hunter began to find his footing with the release of his American debut, People Gonna Talk, in 2006. Comprised completely of originals, it garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording.
His sophomore effort, The Hard Way, stuck to the same formula, winning an even broader audience in America. Hunter toured as an opening act for Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Etta James and his mentor, Van Morrison. Sadly, during the recording of The Hard Way in 2008, Hunter’s wife Jackie was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2011.
Hunter’s new release, Minute By Minute, is dedicated to Jackie. The album is credited to the James Hunter Six, an acknowledgement of his longtime backing band: Damian Hand on tenor Saxophone and Flute, Lee Badau on baritone sax, Jonathan Lee on Drums, Jason Wilson on double Bass, Kyle Koehler on Organ and Andrew Kingslow on Piano, Vibraphone and Percussion.
Minute By Minute also marks Hunter’s first release for venerable Bay Area record label, Fantasy, home to artists like Vince Guaraldi and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The album opens with “Chicken Switch,” a track that blends what-the-cluck chicken scratch guitar riffs and a percolating Cha-Cha rhythm. The lyrics offer a panacea for life in the fast lane…”Remember what you want, isn’t always what you need.”
Hunter wears his influences of his sleeve. Four tracks here act as nuanced homages to his R&B forefathers, without feeling contrived or derivative. “Drop On Me” is a swivel-hipped soul-shouter that harnesses the sweat and grit of James Brown & His Famous Flames and the testifying finesse of Ray Charles.
The lyrics admonish a duplicitous ex for her reliance on crocodile tears… “Anything to keep you from turning on the tap/ But I ain’t got another cheek you ain’t already slapped.” On the instrumental break, Hunter unspools a sharp guitar solo that stings, swings and twangs.
The title track blends fluttery guitar riffs with prickly percussion. The skeleton of the melody and Hunter’s precise vocals recall Brenton Wood’s classic “Oogum Boogum Song.”
Tinkling piano fills and scorched earth horn parts lock into a solid groove on “Goldmine.” Hunter’s honeyed vocal gymnastics trill and pirouette evoking comparisons to silky innovator Sam Cooke.
Finally “Gypsy” is a stylish mash up of The Champs’ “Tequila” and Allen Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller.” Powered by rippling acoustic guitar triplets, hand-clap percussion and a honking baritone saxophone. Less than thrilled with the Gypsy’s dire prophecies, Hunter exacts his revenge… “Now cross my hand with silver, the wise old gypsy said/All I had was a length of pipe so I crossed his head with lead.”
Along with his pantheon of Soul icons, a couple of songs here are clearly influenced by early Rolling Stones records. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s have been accepted as the Stones’ co-pilots for more than 40 years. Sadly, people forget the architect of the band’s nascent sound was original lead guitarist, Brian Jones.
Hunter hasn’t forgotten and both “Nothing I Would Do” and “One Way Love” feature pithy guitar solos that rotate with crisp precision. Each evoke seminal Stones records like “12 X 5” and “Now.”
Other stand out tracks on Minute By Minute, include “Let The Monkey Ride, wherein a loose-limbed melody links up with a treacly string section and a slithery Surf guitar break.
“Heartbreak” is a supple rhumba accented by a caffeinated saxophone solo that jitters and smokes, winding down to a wistful coda.
The album closes with “If I Only Knew,” a languid charmer that easily recalls Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” Rueful and disconsolate, the tune is enveloped by slippery Spanish guitar notes and Hunter’s understated vocals.
Handling production chores for Minute By Minute is Gabriel Roth (a.k.a. Bosco Mann), co-founder of Brooklyn-based Dap-Tone Records. Specializing in Funk and Soul, Dap-Tone is home to transcendent soul-revival bands like Sharon Jones And The Dap-Tones, Antibalas , the Budos Band and Charles Bradley. Roth has sharpened Hunter’s sound without sacrificing his warmth.
Minute By Minute is an unmitigated success. A breath of fresh air in a Pop landscape overpopulated by dense mission statements that masquerade as music.
Like Chris Isaak, James Hunter has found his niche. His music celebrates an bygone era, but remains vital and contemporary. The perfect balance. Jackie would be proud.