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
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.”