The James Hunter Six
With his last two albums, 2006’s Grammy-nominated People Gonna Talk and 2008’s The Hard Way, James Hunter delivered a classic yet perpetually modern brand of rhythm and blues that captivated listeners across generations and earned him two Billboard Blues #1's, tours with Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Etta James, and Willie Nelson, performances on Leno, Letterman, and Conan, and critical raves everywhere from the NY Times to USA Today.
Minute By Minute, due out February 26, 2013 on GO Records/Fantasy, marks a pivotal movement in this unique artist’s career—not only because it arguably contains his best writing, singing, and playing to date, but because it signals James’ return to the studio following the loss of his wife Jacqueline, who died of cancer in October 2011.
It’s also the first album credited to The James Hunter Six. James made this change in recognition of the collective talent and unstinting loyalty shown by his longtime cohorts Lee Badau (baritone saxophone), Damian Hand (tenor saxophone), Kyle Koehler (organ), Jonathan Lee (drums), and Jason Wilson (double bass). The Six have hung together through multiple albums and more than two decades of international touring, from small clubs to the Hollywood Bowl – developing a cohesion and intuitive knack for creating precisely the right arrangement and feel for James' original songs.
And Minute By Minute is the first James Hunter album to be recorded in the US, and the first to be produced by Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann Productions. Roth is cofounder of Daptone Records, America’s premier soul revival imprint. He earned a Grammy for his expert engineering on Amy Winehouse’s best–selling album Back to Black, and has also produced and/or engineered recordings by Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap–Kings, the Budos Band, and Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, among others.
“It really does have a leaner and punchier sound than our previous albums,” Hunter says of Roth’s deft, unobtrusive touch on Minute by Minute, punctuating his remarks with characteristic raspy laughter. “I take the credit it for that, because I followed Gabe’s suggestions. I thought that was very intelligent of me! “Without pouring any fancy ketchup on it, Gabe got this sound that we always thought we should have had.”
The Story So Far
James Hunter was born October 2, 1962 into a working–class family in Colchester, Essex. “It wasn’t quite like growing up with the blues in Alabama, but in my part of England, anywhere south of Watford would be considered Alabama,” he notes. “In the States, you’ve got the Mason– Dixon Line and in England, we’ve got the Watford Gap.” Among James’ earliest musical influences was a collection of 78 r.p.m. records of Fifties rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues given to him by his grandmother; and his older brother Perry Hunstman (James' real surname), “the one responsible for me learning how to play a G chord.” (Perry later became an accomplished acoustic guitarist; he performs regularly on the Midlands folk club circuit, playing in a traditional fingerpicking style.)
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.
In the early Nineties, Van Morrison caught James’ act 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). About Hunter, Morrison said, "He's one of the best voices and best kept secrets in British R&B and soul."
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 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 was better. The hours were more sociable; the pay was better, and the crack addicts were far better company!”
Through a chance encounter with an American vacationing in London, busking later led to management and a record deal, and in 2006, GO Records/Rounder released People Gonna Talk, the first James Hunter album ever issued in the US. With its affectionate echoes of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, the disc became an airplay staple on some of the nation’s most influential radio stations. The Los Angeles Times praised James Hunter’s “extraordinary soul voice”; Rolling Stone called his album “a treat not to miss.” By the year’s end, People Gonna Talk was among the Top Ten “Best Albums of 2006” as cited by Mojo, USA Today and the WFUV listeners’ poll, to name a few. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album and James himself was nominated as Best New/Emerging Artist in the annual Americana Music Awards.
Hunter’s next album, The Hard Way (GO Records/Hear Music) earned even better accolades, with Rolling Stone calling it “unbelievably awesome” and the New York Times praising Hunter’s “tight, slithery groove” and “sweet growl.” The album featured a guest appearance by avowed Hunter fan Allen Toussaint, and like its predecessor reached #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart. Hunter toured extensively behind it, both as a headliner and supporting the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs and others.
Call it Gospel Funk! In truth, the sound of The Relatives is so much more. Formed in 1970 by veteran Dallas Gospel singer Rev. Gean West and his brother Tommie, The Relatives’ sound bridges the gap between traditional Gospel, Soul and Psychedelia. In the early 1970’s, they recorded three obscure singles and a previously unreleased session—all of which are compiled on the acclaimed 2009 anthology, Don’t Let Me Fall. The release of the anthology brought The Relatives back together as a band, planting the seeds for their 2013 Yep Roc release, The Electric Word, which was recorded and produced by Jim Eno of Spoon.
The Relatives are spawned from the same fervent Pentecostal tradition that begat Elder Utah Smith. In the 1950's and 60's, the West family were Dallas Gospel royalty and often hosted traveling musicians including a young Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Lou Rawls, and O.V. Wright. Rev. Tommie recalls climbing a tree to watch Soul Stirrer Sam Cooke play guitar and sing on their front porch. When Rev. Gean returned home from 1970 tour, a young Tommie had written a song in a new voice influenced as much by traditional Gospel quartets as it was James Brown and Hendrix. "Speak to Me (What's Wrong With America?)" marked the beginning of The Relatives and a new musical direction, dubbed the "Street Sound" by Rev. Gean. The group quickly realized that their contemporary sound would get them bookings in nightclubs as well as churches. As Rev. Gean says, "If the people won't come to church, we'll bring church to the people."
The Relatives spent the 1970's touring nationwide and pressing small batches of 45 rpm singles that did well regionally, but never made a splash outside of North Texas. Known for their powerful original songs and searing stage show, their reputation survived the 1970's, but the group did not, recording their final session with legendary engineer Phil York in 1975 and disbanding in 1980. Rev. Tommie founded his No Walls Ministries, while Rev. Gean continued to manage touring Gospel artists, founded his own church and hosted a popular radio show on Dallas' KKDA, "Soul 73 AM." With only a cracked copy of The Relatives' "Don't Let Me Fall" single to go on, Heavy Light Records located Rev. Gean in 2009 and began the process of reissuing The Relatives' vintage recordings. Rev. Gean calls The Relatives' rediscovery and resurgence, "nothing short of a miracle."
After a stunning, sold-out 2009 reunion performance at the Continental Club in Austin, The Relatives began performing regularly again, barnstorming major festivals and venues worldwide, taking their incredible stage show and four-part harmony to Lincoln Center, ACL Fest, Bonnaroo and Splendour in the Grass. Summer 2011 found the group in southern France, where they appeared at the Cognac Blues Passions festival, collaborating with a 30-member French community choir for an impassioned performance of Relatives originals. 2011 also saw The Relatives combine forces with Garage/Soul powerhouse Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears to record “You Been Lyin,” which appears on the BJL album, Scandalous. Their Austin City Limits TV taping with Black Joe Lewis has been called “one of the best we’ve ever seen” by longtime ACL staff and fans.
Picking up BJL's drummer and guitarist/musical director as full-time members, The Relatives cut the The Electric Word, their first recording in over 30 years in the summer of 2012. Still helmed by the West brothers, The Relatives' current incarnation is the most powerful generation of this musical family to date.
"The Relatives are the heroes America needs, even if we don't deserve them."
- Dean Blackwood, Revenant Records