Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
The Return of Sam Cockney – The James Hunter Story
An American DJ is interviewing James Hunter on camera, at some point after his Grammy Award nominated album went stellar in the States: “Why do you English guys sing in American accents?” he asks. James replies that the listeners wouldn't thank him if he sang in his native accent. To press home the point, he sings a snatch of Sam Cooke' s You Send Me in classic pub knees-up style. “There you are.” he says. “Sam Cockney.”
Hunter's story goes roughly like this: For a while in the 1970s, he lived with his mum and siblings in a small caravan in an onion field in Thorrington. He listened mostly to old rock'n'roll records on a Dansette given to him by his gran. Then he attended Monkwick School and grew up in Colchester. Round about the mid 1980s, by now in his early twenties, he formed a rootsy little R&B band, and jokingly called himself Howlin' Wilf. People, however, took him seriously. He was good. In the midst of all those Flocks of Seagulls, power-dressers and great big stadium gestures, he actually had a wonderful little club band, the VeeJays, for anyone who preferred to take the road less-travelled. He regularly returned to his hometown and even stormed the Wivenhoe May Fair a couple of times. He also made a record or two.
Somewhere along the line, he got a part in a rather overlooked Brit-gangster film, Mojo in which he played a band leader. He met Harold Pinter, who was starring in the film. He was ticked off by a still-in-character Pinter, for playing his music back too loudly. Later on, down on his luck, whilst dragging fertiliser sacks from a van in a West London street, he met the playwright again. Pinter remembered him and was nice to him. Also, along the way, he met Van Morrison. Van liked him so much that he didn't even have him wrapped, just took him home. He ended up in a band touring with Morrison and Georgie Fame. He went to America and met Jimmy Witherspoon, John Lee Hooker and Alan Toussaint. He made another record. It was a hit. The Americans liked it. People Gonna Talk was up there in the top ten best albums of 2006.
Back in Blighty, even Terry Wogan played a track. Then, instead of the usual blarney, Wogan gave the run-out groove of the record a mystified, respectful silence, saying quietly: “...and that was James Hunter.” Joolz Holland, has featured James on the Later show ‒ twice. Almost the entire UK music industry now knows who he is and loves him. Except for the general public ‒ who are busy being sonically anaesthetised by Jedward and Subo. As Roger the Dodger might have said: “Top dodge, hey, readers?” Ho ho. Now for a slap up feed.
I'll call James Hunter 'Wilf' from here on in, as everyone in Colchester who remembers him from the old days ‒ myself included ‒ will know him by that name. Wilf and I touch on the subject of the X-Factor: “You mean, Smashed Dignity Showcase?” he laughs, “Stuart Maconie called it that.” I tell Wilf that they should put a line at the end of each show saying “No real artistes were hurt in the making of this programme.”
I also tell Wilf that I still think it's a great format. I mean, you get the audience up on the stage. You award them points for the most mediocre performances. You get a small cartel of successful business executives to run the thing and then give the watching public only that which they already know. Despite the protestations of the Handwringing Classes, you don't actually humiliate anyone. You simply you let them humiliate themselves. No victims, only volunteers. Brilliant. Ker-ching! And while England's still slopping around in the kitchen, in pink fluffy mules and a tatty negligee, mesmerised by the telly, James Hunter's out on the drive in a shark-finned Cadillac, bipping on the horn like a dream date. And they're still not ready. Britain's got talent? Britain's got cloth ears, more like.
Talent, you understand isn't just the inate ability to do a thing. It's the ability to realise it, to improve it, and then maintain the quality of that talent , in many locations and in all kinds of adverse circumstances. I concluded some time ago that Wilf must have practised an awful lot when he was younger. Over the 24 years since I first met him, there have been a series of sudden dawnings for me about his musical ability. Round at Captain Sensible's, for instance, in Brighton in '86. The Captain was asking where he could get a harmonica session player. Wilf who just happened to be visiting some people in a house over the road, says, “Oh, I can play a bit.” And he plays this solo. Prior to that I'd only ever heard two blokes play the gob-iron as well as that. One of them was called Rory McCleod and the other was a bloke called Stevie Wonder.
A few years on, Wilf arrived back in Brighton with a bassist and drummer to play at a friend's wedding. Somewhere above a dancing throng, Wilf was on a tiny stage playing a guitar solo. He was really tearing it up, ragging the R&B song around like Jack Russell does with an old sock in the garden. Not widdly-widdly guitar heroics but something maybe more like Ike Turner at his best. In the middle of it all, Wilf peeled off a lick, which I recognised as Colonel Bogey, the military band tune. Hilarious.
John Cooper Clarke, a connoisseur of such things, will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that Wilf is the best guitarist he's ever heard. This is all without even mentioning his voice. You can't pin it down to anything, really. Sure the oft-made comparisons with Sam Cooke may apply a little. Given a blind test, though, I'd have probably guessed at Lee Dorsey in his Working In A Coalmine period. Asked to put a time-frame on his music, I'd have maybe said it came out of hip black America, somewhere between '55 and '65‒ all shiny suits and stingey-brims. In truth though, even within its unimpeachable soul influences, James Hunter's music is nobody's but his own. These are perennial sounds which, as he will tell you himself, “Can still make girls dance.” It's very modern actually.
I still possess a cassette demo with two of his joke songs on it, which, years ago, Wilf gave me. One of the songs extols the virtues of lard. The other's called B***** Me Buttocks For Christmas. Both were lovingly demoed in American doo-wop style. Very wrong. Very funny.
Wilf, a self-possessed, humorous man with a slight feline quality about his eyes, is actually a quarter Burmese. His dad's Eurasian family left Burma, in the early 1940s, when the Japanese invaded. They went to India. When, a few years later, India chucked the Brits out, the family came to England. There's a picture of James Huntsman, Wilf's dad, with*Wilf's gran and auntie sitting outside a long-demolished old house which once stood behind Colchester's George Hotel. It was taken in about 1954, Wilf reckons.
The family emigrated to Australia in 1970, when Wilf was eight years old. Deeply homesick ‒ especially his mum ‒ they returned to Colchester in 1972. Alice Cooper was on TV and a pouting parade of brickies in bacofoil had taken over the pop charts. Wilf spent the time listening to his gran's Frankie Laine records. Of Colchester now, Wilf admits to a nostalgia for the place: “Every street corner grabs hold of me when I come back.” he says wistfully. And then he brightens and asks me, “ Did you know that Lee Marvin's great grandfather came from Great Bentley?” I confess that I didn't. “I've written a poem about my old school, too.” he adds.
I could have gone to Eton
Instead of a comprehensive
But at least you don't get beton
And it's considerably less expensive
Asked about his music style, whenever he's in America, he explains to them that in his native country, the north-south difference is reversed. “ The Watford Gap is our version of the Mason Dixon Line” he tells them ‒ “Except that we have a decent caff, there.”
About eighteen years ago, Wilf turned up at a gig which I was doing in Crouch End. He brought the 1960s singer, Duffy Power with him. We went back to Duffy's afterwards, where the veteran rocker told us scandalous stories about being on the coach with Larry Parnes Stable of Stars in the early Sixties. One well-known young star, when approached in his hotel room, rebuffed the entrepreneur's lecherous advances by hitting Parnes over the head with a heavy bedside lamp. Another one had once gone up to the back of the tour coach and outraged the backing musicians by waving parts of his anatomy around at them. These were the printable stories. Wilf knows all these people, you see.
James Hunter came home to Colchester last month and played the Twist ‒ the Ollie Twist as once was. It was the last gig for now. He and his band are taking some time off, before going back into the studio to do a follow up album to The Hard Way (2008). I get the feeling that he's looking forward to the time off. He says that he writes songs slowly and reflects that after twenty-five years in the business, it's only comparatively recently that he's been able to support a household. And don't a few of us know that story? You may, of course, still be glued to the telly watching the National Karaoke. But if you do want to hear James Hunter, please take your time. He's going to be around for a good while, yet.