A British singer rooted in American soul

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

James Hunter seems to be a creature of habit. The last time the British singer-songwriter-guitarist was in the Boston area, he crossed the border between Cambridge and Arlington to eat at the Arlington Restaurant and Diner. For his second trip to the area, in mid-March, he ate breakfast at the same spot and returned a few hours later for a liquid lunch (ice tea) and an interview.

Clearly, the man knows what he likes and he sticks with it. Not just when it comes to victuals. Musically, Hunter has been doing roughly the same thing for the past two decades, refining his own authentic classic soul and R&B compositions in his homeland in between stints working for British Railways, among other things. All these years later he's finally garnering airplay on adult-contemporary radio with his new album, "People Gonna Talk."

"I've been on the edge of something happening for the last 20 years,'' he says. "If I say so myself, I was pretty rubbish 20 years ago. The material wasn't that great."

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He wasn't totally anonymous during that time. When Hunter was working a day job moving office furniture at an architectural firm - "The only two things I'm good at are singing and lifting things,'' he says - one of the architects recognized him and within minutes everyone in the firm was clamoring for his autograph.

But he's starting to "crack it" in America now with his first disc, a hot club tour, and a reputation as a handsome, if rough-hewn, white guy bringing back black music from a distant era, the sweet soul and R&B sounds of singers such as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

As a preteen, he learned their music from his grandparents' 78s. He was oblivious to most all pop music with, he says, "the exception of punk, which I kind of approved of. Musically, it didn't turn me on that much, but punk was a reaction musically to what was laughingly called progressive rock at the time."

Hunter caught a break by singing with Van Morrison in the early '90s, prompting the gruff Irishman to praise Hunter as "one of the best voices, and best kept secrets in British R&B and soul.''

Hunter, who has bands in England and America, favors groups with tenor and baritone saxophonists. "I fancied the James Brown vibe and New Orleans R&B things, where harmonies meet in middle," he says. "It gives you a lot of dynamics, a lot of range between those two [saxes]."

As a writer, Hunter taps into universal themes - love gained, love lost. "They're not strictly autobiographical," he says of his lyrics. "They're just situations, and some apply to me. That's what makes me a songwriter rather than a biographer.'' On his next disc, he plans to venture into uncharted territory with a song about trying to persuade someone not to kill himself.

The British soul man played a slinky set at Cambridge's Regattabar later that night. Hunter - sporting a sharp suit and hair more fashionably mussed than earlier that day - projected both suave sophistication and self-deprecating charm. He urged those in the sit-down club to get up and dance and, as the set developed, he played more spiky, choked licks on his electric guitar. Occasionally he let loose a yelp during his delivery.

Hunter isn't one for in-depth analysis of his music. "I'm not making much of a bold statement," he says. "I'm just sucking up things I've listened to, and ... making an attempt to do something that affects me the same way as that [music] does. I've ended up doing something that reminds people of that, and, at the same time, I've got me own stamp."

Visit jameshuntermusic.com for more information.

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