You can hear it in every grain, nook, and cranny of James Hunter’s voice: This guy is a soul singer. The Essex-born Englishman, who sings and plays guitar for his combo, The James Hunter Six, has a delivery that’s pure emotion, forsaking smoothness for a gritty, pleading style that recalls ’60s R&B masters like Ray Charles or Otis Redding. He’s that good, as no less an authority than Van Morrison could tell you; Hunter has sang backing vocals on two of Morrison’s albums.
As for his own work, on the four albums that Hunter has released since 2006, he and his band have developed a deceptively easy-sounding chemistry. Their rich blend of horns, barrelhouse piano, upright bass, and Hunter’s own stinging, less-is-more guitar is downright addictive.
What’s perhaps most fascinating about the band’s repertoire is that, as classic as the languid ballads and uptempo horn-spiked shuffles might sound, they’re virtually all recently written Hunter originals. Perhaps that familiar feel comes from the giants that he looks to for inspiration.
“It varies from song to song, but there’s a mood or feel I’m after,” he says. “If you’re talking about people who influence what I do, I would definitely start with [New Orleans music legend] Allen Toussaint; he was a big favorite for me. But I also loved people like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller [who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, and The Coasters, among many others] and Smokey Robinson. I try to get an element of each. They’ve all got different qualities, and I’ve managed to get some of them, but some of them I can’t.
‘Smokey Robinson is someone who has a kind of sweetness and cleverness as a writer that kind of eludes me, because I’m a little more sardonic. But I would like to be able to write more like him.”
Those comments reveal a self-deprecating streak in Hunter, who will play the Peace Center’s Huguenot Loft next Wednesday, and it kept coming up throughout our conversation. When we discussed his tasteful guitar work, for example, his reply was typically humble.
“I’m not saying it out of false modesty, but that style is born out of my limitations,” he says.
“I can’t do the showy stuff. I’m trying to make virtue of my limitations, because I can’t do the wiggly-wiggly all over the place, so I’ll go in with more tact to compensate.”
He has similar feelings about his band’s rippling, joyful arrangements, which he used to handle himself but has recently started turning more and more of over to The Six, which he says has made the songs better.
“I used to sketch out the horn players parts and give them to them,” he says. “But the others have more input than they used to. I still do the skeleton of it, but they’ll do certain sections and improvements.”
There’s another key member of the team that Hunter has praise for, and that’s producer Gabriel Roth. After 31 years making music, and a career full of ups and downs, the 54-year-old has found a great collaborator.
“Gabe is like a seventh member,” Hunter says. “He was always on the short list of people we wanted to work with, but I was unprepared for how good we were going to sound being produced by him. I was almost bitter that we hadn’t been able to use him from the start of our career.”
Speaking of that career, Hunter was working as a day laborer in the early 2000s after his first band, Howlin’ Wilf & The Vee-Jays, ran aground, but his 2006 comeback album “People Gonna Talk” topped the Billboard Blues Album chart and earned him a Grammy nomination. He’s been on the road or in the studio ever since.
“It sometimes feels like all the hard work, all the scuffling has paid off,” he says. “When a bit of success comes your way, you feel you’ve earned it. There’s satisfaction in that.”
The James Hunter Six
Huguenot Mill & Loft, 101 W. Broad St., Greenville
Wednesday, Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m.