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James Hunter keeps soul alive

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  • James Hunter known for old-school R&B recordings
  • British guitarist has earned raves, but still no big-time success
  • Hunter admits that he's trying to combine contemporary lyrics with old sound
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By Douglas Hyde
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "I like L.A., but there sure are a lot of ugly bastards running around here," says James Hunter, with a set of grotesque joke teeth in his mouth -- and tongue firmly in cheek.

James Hunter has received raves for his recordings, but has yet to break through to big-time success.

James Hunter has received raves for his recordings, but has yet to break through to big-time success.

Midway through a lengthy tour, it's nice to know his sense of humor is intact. The boyish 46-year-old British retro-R&B singer is in a dressing room at the Sunset Strip's House of Blues, sitting in a throne-like chair festooned with Mexican Day of the Dead skulls.

It's oddly fitting. Like that festival, Hunter is remembering -- through his music -- those who are no longer with us. His classic soul-inspired sound and concert style harkens back to the golden days of R&B and the men who practiced it: Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and guitarist Lowman Pauling, among others.

"I think I probably stole a couple of tricks from people who were already dead by the time I started," he replies, when asked about his stage moves. Indeed, an hour later he's on stage and it's clear that if you put him in the "Back to the Future" DeLorean, traveled back to 1955 and dropped him off with Marvin Berry's band at the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance, he'd be right at home. Video Watch Hunter perform for a sound check »

That authentic old-school sound has made him a cult favorite among jazz and blues aficionados. His first two albums -- 2006's "People Gonna Talk" and last year's "The Hard Way" -- were acclaimed by critics and the cognoscenti, with the Boston Globe calling "The Hard Way" "one of the year's smoothest and best discs." He's also earned praise as a dazzling live performer, one who is known for guitar acrobatics performed with a smile.

But he has yet to achieve the mainstream success of British retro-soul contemporaries Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele. Could it be because they've found a way to blend contemporary lyrics with an older sound?

Hunter acknowledges he doesn't do enough of that in his own music: "I think that's my downfall, to be honest. I think they picked up on a trick that I'm trying, that I've mastered. I mean, I think they're as much immersed in contemporary stuff as the old days. I think that's pretty cool. I'm trying to do that.

"Stylistically, I'm more embedded, not in tradition -- I mean I'm not into genres -- but styles, you know," he continues. "The sound of things. I've got my preference in the sound and stuff. But, you know, I think I can afford to go their way a little bit, not because it's successful, but because it works."

Interestingly, few American acts have embraced the retro-soul sound with the fervor of their British counterparts. Hunter has his theories on why that's the case.

"It could be because you guys invented it, you know. I think it's possible," he says. "I'm not sure these days, but initially you had the Stones and people like that, even the Beatles who were much more in awe in this American music than Americans were. It all tends to be on your doorstep and you tend to be more cavalier to the stuff that's already there. It's like the thing when John Lennon told the reporters that he wanted to see Muddy Waters and they said, 'Where's that?' "


But despite the love he has for the music of the classic soul era, Hunter understands that going forward, a healthy irreverence is what will keep it fresh for audiences -- and himself.

"I think the downfall of any type of music is to treat it with too much reverence, because the people at the time weren't treating it with reverence and they were sort of bashing it out, that was the beauty of it, the spontaneity," he says. "But, when people are trying to preserve stuff -- you've got to be loyal to this or that kind of music -- that's so much nonsense."

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