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Soul blues singer James Hunter Soul blues singer James Hunter

interviewed March 2005. Photos by Andy Hall

We met James in his local, The Sir Richard Steele in Chalk Farm. A couple of weeks previously I'd seen him play a solo gig here, mic and guitar both going through the amp he was sitting on. It's a great pub with a friendly North London local vibe with a fantastic eclectic decor. James knew most of the people there
and it seemed that this was not so much a gig, more that he often brought his guitar along and did a few numbers.

When I spoke to him that night he was reluctant to call himself a blues player, and certainly much of his repertoire connects only loosely to what some people might call the blues, but it comes from the same place and that night, sitting in the corner and playing his style of R n' B, the connection with a music tradition going all the way back to musicians playing bars to entertain - the real roots of the blues - was clear.

The day we went to do the interview he was just back from playing at a festival at Agen in the South of France. A bit bleary until he'd had his first coffee of the day, we discussed the question of definition...

So, do you play 'Blues' music?

Hunter: No, not really. But it's the closest category we can come under I suppose. We've been described as 'Soul', and maybe that's a bit nearer the mark. Our whole vibe is a bit like a cross between James Brown and Ray Charles' Atlantic stuff. That where the feel is based. There's a bit of Caribbean vibe going on sometimes. But it's just a load of pop songs really.

To me it sounds like 'R n' B', but lots of people have different ideas about what 'R n' B means...

Well a lot of people use it now as a generic term for black music, which is what it used to be - Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, they were
R n' B... The way a lot of people have it now, its all 'B' and no 'R'!

What was your route into this kind of music?

Well I did have a preference for older stuff - the stuff that was around at the time I was born. I inherited a load of old records off my grandmother when I was about nine. We lived in a caravan in the middle of an onion fields just outside of Colchester and there wasn't much in the way of entertainment. So we used to listen to an old Dancette record player and a load of 78's, and among them was a sprinkling of Jackie Wilson and stuff like that. I was always into Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran as well, and I just got more interested in the black side of things.

Were you part of the Rockabilly revival thing in the eighties?

I was never mad on the Rockabilly thing - it was too far along the white side of it, but there was a certain period where if you had a band with a double bass in it people thought you were a rockabilly. Charles Mingus would have been called Rockabilly if he'd sprung up in 82! But lot of my mates were in on that and you could say we got a following among those people.

And that was Howling Wilf and the Vejays?

Yeah, I'd had a little trio in Colchester before but then I came to London to pursue the music. I'd sent a demo to Ted Carroll at Ace records who happened to play it to some musicians and they gave me a call. I'd go along to their house every friday night night and we'd rehearse some stuff and then go and busk it down at the lock in Camden on Saturday. About January '86 this was... And then we started getting invited indoors to do some gigs.

Over the years the music stayed more or less the same, although maybe the emphasis has altered a bit. When we started I was doing more Little Walter and more straight blues, but when I changed the band I got a horn section in and it felt more like a proper band along the lines of James Brown and Ray Charles, although with a very small orchestra!

Now we've got guitar, double bass, drums, baritone and tenor and that's pretty much the James Hunter Band. Now and again we augment it with a bit of hammond or something like that, which does fill the sound out, so we're hoping to turn it into a six piece when we can afford it!

Soul blues singer James Hunter Soul blues singer James Hunter

On your new album you've got a few tracks with strings on them, is that something you'd like to be able to do more?

Totally, I mean I love the early Drifters stuff where you get those lush string arrangements.

You're well known for having that voice, but your guitar playing is pretty interesting. Where does that come from?

I got a couple of favourite guitarists, there's Johnny Guitar Watson, his early stuff, and guy called Lowman Pauling from The 5 Royales. He was a bass Singer, he wrote 'Dedicated to the One I love' - The Shirelles did it, and the Mamas & Papas - but he's a great guitarist.

The Five Royales Johnny Guitar Watson

My playing comes from trying to fill out the rhythm section - there's only one guitar so I'm trying to do a cross between rhythm and lead, trying to make the rhythm as spare as possible so it doesn't leave a huge gap when you do a lead break. I haven' quite mastered that yet!

You've been playing in London for a fairly long time, as a place to play, how does it compare now to in the past?

Hunter: Quiet! It's difficult to get gigs for the full band for the money we want to do them, so we have to go further afield. In London there's a few clubs that only pay enough to do a trio, so I do that - I call it that 'The Butlins Set'... I do the Johnny Burnett and Ray Charles covers. But for venues that can afford it I give the full five piece and we do our own set.

Back in the late eighties there were loads of pubs that were into our kind of stuff... there was a bit of a blues / rootsy kind of thing going on and I think we got swept along with that. It only lasted a few years though. We used to play a lot at The Dublin Castle in Camden and they stopped putting us on in the early nineties and instead they'd pull in the same crowds by putting about ten bands on, so each band would have about twenty of their mates. To be honest, these days I don't take much notice of what it's like in London really. We just do the ones we do.

The 100 Club's still a regular one with us and we get a good number of people in every couple of months. The festivals in Europe seem to be coming in... so between the solo things, the little trio gigs and the festival vibe we seem to be doing alright.


So what about this new album?

Well we got it done with the backing of some friends in America who set up a record company to put it out and now we're trying to get distribution through working with some other record labels
. We recorded it with Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios (article about them here), which was great.

Liam is notoriously cagey about his process, the closest he'll come to giving away any secrets is to say "It's not what you do, it's what you don't do"... When we set up to record, there was only one mike for the two sax players, and one of them asked Liam if there was a reason for that. "Yes, there is." replied Liam, and carried on doing what he was doing.

This one I think is the closest we've come to sounding how we want. We all play in the same room, which is important I think.

The songs are about normal things that affect peoples lives. We're not trying to re-create any kind of period or anything like that - that's not what people were doing in the past. If people try and write stuff that's current then it dates really quickly but if you write the stuff that can apply anytime it gets a longer shelf life.

Related Bluesinlondon pages:
2008 interview with James >>
2005 interview with James >>
Live Review Hammermith Apollo 2008 >>
Live review Jazz Café 2007 >>
Live review Spitz 2006 >>

External Links: - Official Website - Myspace

Trailer for 'People Gonna Talk' >>
Live in Philadelphia >>
Later with Jools Holland >>

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