British singer James Hunter performs at Zoellner Arts Center's Baker Hall on Friday, Jan. 16.
With understated wit, British soul sensation James Hunter
refers to himself as “an overnight success that’s taken 20 years to happen.”
Indeed, Hunter, who headlines at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall on Friday, Jan. 16, was a decade ahead of the current retro-soul revival with his 1996 release, Believe What I Say
With no support from his record label at the time, Hunter wound up back where he had started as a 20-year-old aspiring musician in 1982—busking on the streets.
“The gigs had got a bit thin on the ground,” Hunter recalls.
But the singer says he never lost faith in the music he loves.
“I had emergency measures, like going to do laboring jobs through an agency,” he says. “But it always felt pretty temporary to me. Because, really, apart from lifting things, there’s nothing else I’m really good at. It’s either this or manual labor. And when people see us play, it resembles manual labor anyway.”
A second album, Kick It Around
, was released in Germany in 2001, but it was his 2006 effort, People Gonna Talk
, that finally provided his breakthrough, earning a Grammy nomination, rave reviews, and widespread airplay.
Hunter, who toured and recorded with Van Morrison as a backup singer in the mid-‘90s, is a hardworking and energetic front man, and his always-in-the-pocket band plays with the sweat and passion that come with working together through good times and lean for almost two decades.
“The current members of this band have variously been with me between 20 and 16 years,” Hunter says. “So it was a lineup that sort of chose itself. … The ones who got on with everybody stayed.
“We’re like a family … we hate each other!” he adds, laughing.
The best kept secret
Hunter, who opened for Los Lobos at Zoellner last March, has followed up the Grammy-nominated People Gonna Talk
with his latest release, The Hard Way
, which dominated the blues charts through most of the summer.
“Not bad for somebody who’s not a blues act,” he quips.
Born in Colchester, England, Hunter says he fell in love with R&B and soul music “from the moment I heard it.”
He got his first guitar at age 14, and has known what he wanted to do with his life ever since. After he gained a following with his trio in Colchester’s pubs and folk clubs in the early 1980s, Hunter moved to London in 1986.
In the early 1990s, a fan ran into rock legend Van Morrison at a London newsstand and started raving about this unknown R&B singer he had heard. Morrison showed up at one of Hunter’s shows in Wales, and wound up taking him on the road as a backup singer.
Hunter appears on Morrison’s 1994 live album, A Night in San Francisco
as well as on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s 1995 release, Days Like This
. Morrison returned the favor on Hunter’s debut 1996 album, singing on two songs.
Asked what it was like touring with Morrison, Hunter says: “It was cool. It got me out of the house. I met a few interesting people through that, like Junior Wells and John Lee Hooker. And I got to see a side of America I hadn’t been to before.”
Most singers would kill for the kind of testimonial Morrison bestowed on Hunter: “James is one of the best voices, and best kept secrets, in British R’n’B and Soul. Check him out!”
But Hunter remained a best kept secret for another decade. Asked why it took so long for his music to find an audience, Hunter says it’s a matter of finally getting managers and a record company that had the contacts and resources to get his music out to the public.
“I think it’s the fact that people could get hold of it, really,” Hunter says. “The first time I recorded it, it was kind of buried, so hardly anyone got to hear it. And the fact that people have picked up on it now is just the fact that it’s actually exposed to them now. I think people probably would have always been receptive to it, if they got a chance to hear it.”
And for Hunter, having someone else get the word out about him is important.
“I’ve never been any good at self-promotion,” he says. “I’ve always had that built-in English humility that stops you from blowing your own trumpet, you know? It never has as much credibility when you do it yourself anyway. I’ve often found people who promote themselves don’t have the equivalent amount of ability at what they do on stage.”
With his electrifying stage shows, Hunter clearly has no such shortcomings.
James Hunter performs at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16. Ryan Shaw opens. For more information and tickets, visit Zoellner’s Web site.
Before the concert, at 7 p.m., Neil Hever, the program and operations director at WDIY radio, will give a free talk about authentic soul music and the influence of British music on American music. Plus, singer-songwriter John Rodgers, a graduate student at Lehigh who is involved in four singing groups, will perform for free in the lobby.