James Hunter

Two Can PlayBelieve What I Say
I'll Walk AwayBelieve What I Say
People Gonna TalkPeople Gonna Talk
No Smoke Without FirePeople Gonna Talk
MollenaPeople Gonna Talk
CarinaThe Hard Way
Tell HerThe Hard Way
It Won't Be LongWe're With The Beatles
Chicken SwitchMinute By Minute
Minute By MinuteMinute By Minute


James Hunter playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

You can divide soul singers into two broad camps. The first is Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas. The second is Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson. Deep soul v light soul. Often in fact Atlantic versus Tamla-Motown. Or as one Atlantic history says, Adult sex (Atlantic) v Teenage petting (Motown). So many British vocalists go for the more powerful style: Chris Farlowe, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker. James Hunter is the other lighter school, though Sam Cooke is the overwhelming vocal influence. He defines ‘paying your dues’ and at thirty years into his career is finally getting the acclaim he deserves, most recently touring America with Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings.

You’ve got to love a band called Howlin’ Wilf & The Vee Jays. Their first two albums were Cry Wilf! (1986) and an EP Blue Men Sing The Whites. James Hunter was Howlin’ Wilf. I’m not going to choose any Howlin’ Wilf tracks, in spite of interesting covers like Summertime, Ya Ya and Hello Stranger. It’s a four piece band without the horns which are so much part of James Hunter’s sound, and the recording quality is echoey. Also the soul influence is more “proto-soul” that is Bobby Bland/Big Joe Turner, R&B, rather than later soul. But it’s all well-performed.

James Hunter worked with Van Morrison as a backing vocalist on both A Night In San Francisco and Days like This and Van Morrison returned the favour on James Hunter’s … Believe What I Say in 1996, singing with him on Turn On Your Lovelight and Ain’t Nothing You Can Do. Both are Bobby Bland songs, and that’s the feel of the album. Believe What I Say is the title track, with a strong Van Morrison influence. The band has crystallized into guitar, double bass, two saxes and drums, with added trumpet and organ for the Van duets. Organ later joined the band on a full-time basis. Turn On Your Lovelight is terrific but starts off with Van Morrison and you’d put Van down as lead vocalist.

It’s late 50s / Early 60s proto-soul. He also takes on Hallelujah, I Love Her So, and Doris Troy joins him on the original, Hear Me Calling. I Wanna Get Old With You has a Caribbean lilt, rather like the semi-novelty songs popular with R&B singers of the early 60s. To me, The Very Thought of You is a mistake.

Believe What I Say opens with the original Two Can Play, great rolling R&B with a classic betrayal lyric. The guitar intro and solo are classic rock rather than soul, but the horns and style are James Brown influenced on an album which also includes a cover of Out of Sight.

I’ll Walk Away from the album has a strong touch of Sam Cooke. James Hunter’s retro guitar solo is a special treat on this song. Check it out. He reprises the song on the People Gonna Talk album from 2006, slower, more prominent bass. I’ll stick with the earlier version.

There is a missing album here, Kick It Around from 1998 which I haven’t managed to find what with copies online ranging from £48 to £86. It includes covers of Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question, and an earlier version of Mollena which is noted below in its People Gonna Talk reincarnation. We’ll go on without it.

People Gonna Talk is the title track and opening track of his 2006 album. The same basic band, but now in true sixties soul fashion we have a string section, with a sax solo over the top. This is the one to start with if you’ve never heard James Hunter before. The most accessible album. The style reaches its full defined form here: relaxed vocal, lilting rhythm, almost reggae-lite, close up plucked string section, cruising gentle horns. I’m going to find myself repeating here, because I keep picking the melodic songs in this style at the expense of the more generic R&B on each of the albums.

The contrasting James Hunter style is the next track No Smoke Without Fire with punctuating riffing nervous horns and a very mid-60s Atlantic feel. The guitar solo is memorable too.

Mollena continues the Sam Cooke influence, Cupid comes to mind. The horns weave underneath the song, softly and entrancingly.

Carina is from The Hard Way (2008) where Alan Toussaint guests on two tracks (check out his piano intro to Believe Me Baby), and there is a 9-piece string section. Therefore Carina has strings, horns. The name Carina is a lot like Mollena when you get it to scan, and both songs have a similar vibe and chorus, but then again both are perfect examples of his style, and this one has the plucked string section.

My choice of Tell Her from The Hard Way proves I like his Sam Cooke style more than the Ray Charles R&B style. Vibraphone is added to the line up with backing vocals from Jimmy Thomas and George Chandler. The horn line is Van Morrison-influenced, but the joy is the male chorus, very Temptations or Miracles. The vibraphone is part of the Motown effect, though the double bass gives an earlier feel.

It Won’t Be Long is from the Mojo magazine 2013 covermount disc We’re With The Beatles and introduces the name change from James Hunter to the group name, The James Hunter Six. Mojo has been working steadily in recreating Beatles albums with cover versions, and such is the importance of the magazine in Britain, that they can commission special new versions, as here. I’ve included it because of that old live advice to bands: include at least one familiar cover in your set, transformed to your style. James Hunter slows it down, makes it 50% longer (It will be long?) accentuates the already choppy rhythm of the original into Caribbean and has the horns do their Got to Get You Into My Life thing. The drumming is particularly excellent. It is a particularly good tribute album incidentally.

Chicken Switch opens Minute By Minute from 2013. The photos show six including James Hunter. It’s called The James Hunter Six, but Andrew Littlejohn who played vibes and piano on The Hard Way is listed in the main credits, making it seven, or perhaps plus six. Again there are added strings and backing vocals. I had a struggle with this album, and was tempted to include more from the previous two. The playing on this is exemplary as usual, but I kept seeking a People Gonna Talk/Mollena/ Carina and this album rocks more. It opened with Chicken Switch which is a tricky song. The rhythm and feel make you expect a dance number, and the opening squawking chicken-pickin’ guitar really makes you expect Rufus Thomas. The Chicken Switch sounds like a dance to me, and I keep expecting Do the chicken switch! but it’s not at all. When the going gets rough and you’ve had enough, hit the chicken switch … When in doubt, take the coward’s way out, hit the chicken switch. Terrific stuff, and as well as the guitar, we get some vocal chicken noises (Rufus Thomas again) and some James Brown shrieks. It’s a move away from that languid smooth Sam Cooke style.

Minute By Minute is the title track and the second track too. This Toppermost has been delayed as I tried to avoid the first two tracks in order. So They Say (track 9) is the smoother style I usually prefer, but I suspect James Hunter took the advice to lead with the two strongest tracks. Classic soul organ rhythm, horns. Perfectly hit simple drums. Lots more shrieks from James Hunter and even a break into falsetto.


James Hunter Official Site

James Hunter biography (Apple Music)

Check out all Peter’s record and concert reviews at his website here.

TopperPost #348


  1. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Sep 11, 2014

    OK, Peter, I’ll be the first. As you know, we were fortunate enough to see and hear James Hunter in April 2014 when he came to Victoria to a small venue to open for the great Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I had never heard of him and knew nothing of him. He was great! He was backed by Dap-King members and he played a terrific set and he immediately grabbed the audience with his personable approach and professionalism. It was a major surprise and I continue to listen. The influences were immediate and obvious and the dedication to his craft was clear. His banter between songs about ‘making a living’ at this after so many years rang true. We were privileged to have had this opportunity to be introduced to a solid artist in a small venue where he excelled.

  2. Jack London
    Oct 3, 2014

    Nice work Peter! I’ve been a ‘fan’ of James from the very early ‘Wilf’ days when we used to scour the ‘Time-Out’ listings for low-key gigs at maybe the Dublin or the Weavers… the best compliment I can pay is that he always seemed the ‘real deal’ to me, and I’m eternally blessed that I was able to get him to perform (fantastically) at my wedding in 2002… great to see that he’s now made the hallowed Toppermost listings! 🙂 …cheers!

  3. Rob Millis
    Oct 4, 2014

    Yes, I’d agree with that – when I used to wade through the eternally slow paced tedium that was using the Teletext gig guide, it was always good to see “Wilf” on somewhere. Hunter and (slightly more recently) Ian Siegal are the two most deserving cases of people who’ve done the London blues circuit and come out the other end! So refreshing – and sadly so rare – to find an act that isn’t a widdly guitarist or a harmonica player dressed in 50s gear like a tosspot. There’s a reason why folks like this get somewhere – because they are bloody good, and don’t think the world began and ended with John Mayall or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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