James Hunter

Bri­tish soul sen­sa­tion James Hunter’s golden voice be­lies a tar­nished back­story that takes in brawls, busk­ing and as­sorted “bastards”. We met the Es­sex band­leader to hear about tough times, dodgy amps and the pub fight that al­most killed his Les Paul

Guitarist - - Contents - Words: Henry Yates Pho­tog­ra­phy: Will Ireland

The honey-voiced Bri­tish R&B man has had to use a Les Paul for self-de­fence in his time. Read about his rough-and-tum­ble ad­ven­tures in mu­sic on

The voice is what sets him apart. Equal parts mo­lasses and nico­tine, swoop­ing from a hon­eyed croon to a frayed holler. It’s the kind of voice you’d hear crack­ling from a dusty 45 vinyl sin­gle, evok­ing late-50s Memphis and long-dead ses­sion men. Given all that, it’s a cu­ri­ous thing to hear James Hunter an­swer the phone in an aitch-drop­ping cock­ney drawl, more Colch­ester mar­ket than Stax vo­cal booth. “My Amer­i­can wife is start­ing to de­velop my ac­cent,” chuck­les the Bri­tish soul sen­sa­tion. “Which is a ter­ri­ble thing!”

Com­ing up the hard way on the Es­sex cir­cuit, Hunter has helmed his six-piece band since the late-80s. But it’s only in re­cent times that the man dubbed by Mojo as “the UK’s great­est soul singer” has hit pay­dirt, sign­ing to Dap­tone, scor­ing a Grammy nom­i­na­tion and en­joy­ing a crit­i­cal star­burst for lat­est al­bum What­ever It Takes.

If there’s a down­side to be­ing the owner of that once-a-gen­er­a­tion voice­box, it’s that no­body ever men­tions Hunter’s gui­tar prow­ess, his clipped rhythm work and offthe-cuff leads. “Do I feel over­looked as a gui­tarist?” echoes the 55-year-old. “Well, peo­ple do some­times men­tion my all-tooap­par­ent lim­i­ta­tions…” So what are your lim­i­ta­tions? “Well, I don’t know if it’s sour grapes, but the stuff I’m in­ca­pable of do­ing on gui­tar is usu­ally the stuff I don’t want to do. Y’know, the long, sus­tained ‘gui­tar hero’ so­los. I think gui­tar play­ing needs to ac­knowl­edge what kind of record it’s on, what the other guys are do­ing. A solo shouldn’t dis­ap­pear up its own arse. If I wanted to im­prove as a gui­tarist, I wouldn’t mind be­ing able to fol­low any chord se­quence, get re­ally jazzy. I fancy a bit of that. But I know my lim­i­ta­tions and I’m com­fort­able with it. I used to think my voice and gui­tar-play­ing com­pen­sated for each other. Early on, my whole thing was, ‘If you don’t like my singing, I’ll throw some­thing in on the gui­tar’ – and vice-versa.” How about your strengths? “My co-or­di­na­tion. I haven’t got the best sense of rhythm in the world, but I’m quite good at do­ing weird stuff while si­mul­ta­ne­ously singing. But melod­i­cally, as a gui­tarist, I would call my­self a bit lim­ited.” Your gui­tar break on I Got Eyes is pretty tasty… “Oh yeah. Well, that’s the kind of thing I do, where you go: ‘Is he play­ing rhythm or lead there?’ It’s a bit of both. It’s like with Johnny Kidd & The Pirates: there was one gui­tarist who had to adapt their style to rhythm and lead. The Who did it as well. In the old days, there wasn’t an­other rhythm in­stru­ment in the band – noth­ing be­tween me and the bass – and I’ve kept a bit of that.”

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