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James’ passion for the music of the Fifties and Sixties never waned as he toiled for seven years as a signal locking fitter in Colchester, tending to a Victorian-era safety feature found in signal boxes. He put together his first band to play at the Colchester Labour Club; his first original song, the Muddy Waters-style “Evil Eye,” was composed in 1984 for a mostly-rockabilly compilation entitled Dance To It. Later in the decade, he released three albums as Howlin’ Wilf & the Vee-Jays before Ace Records issued James Hunter’s solo debut, Believe What I Say, featuring guest appearances by Van Morrison and the late Doris Troy. James’ second solo album, Kick It Around, was produced by Morrissey guitarist Boz Boorer and released on Ruf Records of Germany in 2001.
In the early Nineties, Van Morrison was stopped at a London newsstand when a fan approached and began regaling him about this great unknown rhythm & blues singer he’d heard. Van went to hear James at a gig in Wales and subsequently hired him as a backup singer for several years of touring and recording. James appeared on Morrison’s live album, A Night in San Francisco (1994), and on the studio set, Days Like This (1995). But by 2003, James Hunter was 41 years old and without a record deal or a gig. His dreams of a career in music were rapidly fading.
“I went through a particularly skint time,” he later told an interviewer. “I was forced to do laboring jobs through an agency. It was terrible. I discovered that busking [playing for tips on the streets of London] was better. The hours were more sociable; the pay was better, and the crack addicts were far better company.”
Steve Erdman had been a James Hunter fan for nearly 20 years, ever since the first time he’d seen James playing on the street in Camden. In late 2003, Erdman and his partner, Kimberly Guise, created GO Records to release a new James Hunter album. “The sole purpose of the company was getting me recorded,” says the singer. “It was extraordinarily nice of them.” Then came People Gonna Talk, and in its wake the reviews, the airplay, the award nominations, and loads of gigs.
With the release of The Hard Way, James Hunter takes a giant step toward staking his place in the pop-soul pan¬theon alongside Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, Charlie Rich and Van Morrison. In his typically straight¬forward and self-effacing way, the singer told The Boston Globe: “The history [of rhythm & blues] is so rich with great singers and performers. I’m just trying to tap into that vein and try to make music that is about love and romance and heartbreak—all those great things that will fuel songs long after we’re here.”