James Hunter was born Neil James Huntsman in Colchester, Essex in October 1962. He left school at 16 to work mending signal boxes on the railways. Introduced to rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues via his grandmother’s collection of old 78s, he quickly fell in love with the genre and began to develop his sound as a teenager. His first experience of playing live didn’t occur until he was 22, when his group performed at Colchester Labour club (“we were dreadful”), but his career swiftly started swinging as powerfully and jubilantly as his music. Adopting the moniker Howlin’ Wilf in honour of one of his biggest inspirations, in 1986 he cut an album titled ‘Cry Wilf’ for the independent Big Beat label with backing band The Vee-jays. Early the following year, he enjoyed his big break when the band made an appearance on Channel 4’s Friday teatime music show The Tube.
Howlin’ Wilf & The Vee-Jays became a popular fixture on the UK club circuit, and in the early ’90s they caught the eye of Van Morrison, who asked them to back him at the Belfast Telegraph Awards in 1991. Subsequently, Hunter was invited to sing backing vocals with Morrison’s touring band — he appears on 1994’s A Night In San Francisco live CD and on 1995’s studio album ‘Days Like This.’ Returning the compliment, the Belfast soul man sings on Hunter’s 1996 album Believe What I Say.
By the early 2000s, however, Hunter found himself down on his luck and working as a labourer in west London but soon realised it was more lucrative and better fun to earn a living busking. The low point came when a homeless female squatted down and relieved herself in front of him while he performed in the street (“Everyone’s a critic!”). Slowly pulling himself out of this slough of despond, with his trusted Six he cut the album that would ignite his career — 2006’s People Gonna Talk, and relaunch his career.