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Get Ready: Tommy Hunt’s “Sign of the Times” Revives Northern Soul Favorites

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Tommy Hunt - Sign of the Times

Trivia: who was the first artist to release Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” in 1962?  Hint: it wasn’t Dusty Springfield (1964) or Dionne Warwick (1966).  The answer is Tommy Hunt, onetime member of The Flamingos and a member of the Scepter Records family between 1961 and 1964.  At Scepter, Hunt introduced both of those now-classic songs and scored hits like “Human” (No. 5 R&B/No. 46 Pop, 1961) and “I Am a Witness” (No. 71 R&B, 1963).  Hunt followed his Scepter tenure with stints at Atlantic, Capitol and Dynamo, but by 1968, things looked bleak.  It took a trip across the pond to the United Kingdom to revitalize the soul man’s career.  The key next chapter of his musical life has recently been anthologized by Cherry Red’s Shout! label as A Sign of the Times: The Spark Recordings 1975-1976.

Born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tommy Hunt’s family settled in Chicago during his formative years.  But difficulties plagued him.  He served in the U.S. Air Force but went AWOL after receiving the news of his mother’s terminal illness.  He spent time in jail for his desertion, but returned to Chicago with hopes of a brighter future.  There, he first pursued singing as a career.  With his group The Five Echoes, Hunt recorded for the Chance, Sabre and Chess labels; soon, he was deputized to fill in for a recently-drafted member of The Flamingos.  Hunt was with the group for their biggest hit, the 1959 revival of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and its success gave him the ammunition to seek a solo career.  Luther Dixon signed Hunt to Florence Greenberg’s Scepter label in 1960, and “Human,” the original B-side of his very first 45, went Top 5 R&B.  Hunt worked with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as well as Ed Townsend, Dixon, Bacharach and David at Scepter, and reunited with Dixon at Dynamo in 1966.  He also recorded with Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams there.  But when the hits dried up, Hunt had to look elsewhere, and began touring U.S. Army bases in Europe.

The British variety club circuit soon beckoned, and Hunt worked his way up to the more prestigious clubs.  In addition to the cabaret work, he returned to the studio to record for both Polydor and Pye.  But his biggest U.K. success came on the Northern Soul scene.  His performance at the Wigan Casino on the event of its second anniversary on September 27, 1975 was recorded for Spark Records, relaunching Hunt to a large audience hungry for American soul music.  In the new liner notes for Shout’s release, Hunt recalls, “When I got to Wigan, I refused to go in!  It scared me because it looked so rough!  I’d been playing these fabulous clubs.  When I looked at the outside, I said to the driver, ‘you must be at the wrong place.’  He said, ‘Tommy, wait ‘til you get inside.’  When I walked in there, I couldn’t believe it.  The place was a dump and there was so many people, masses of them.”  They were all eager to hear the singer at work.

There’s more on Tommy’s Times, including the track listing and order links, after the jump!

A Sign of the Times pairs Hunt’s 1976 album of the same name with the original Live at Wigan Casino LP, and also adds one non-LP single to collect Hunt’s entire Spark discography on one CD.  The versatile Hunt could sing in any setting, so Sign of the Times is a melting pot of seventies R&B styles.  Disco-style rave-ups (“Loving on the Losing Side,” “Upon My Soul”) sat alongside orchestrated ballads (“A Miracle Like You,” “Loving You Is”).  The title track, like those other aforementioned songs, was penned by the team of Eddy Adamberry and Tony Craig; it’s a brassy, uptempo slice of string-laden seventies soul.  The album also contained a number of covers, from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Get Out (And Make Me Cry)” to Roy Hamilton’s “Crackin’ Up” and a dramatic, bluesy take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Thru the Night.”  Hunt channeled his idol Hamilton with the throwback sound of “Crackin’ Up,” and went similarly retro with the big beat rendition of Larry Santos’ Northern Soul staple “You Got Me Where You Want Me.”  Hunt was just as comfortable with the lightly funky “Sunshine Girl” as with Clifton Davis’ oft-recorded Jackson 5 hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” à la Gloria Gaynor.

Live at the Wigan Casino is a brisk, high-energy, all-covers affair.  Hunt applies his dramatic, urgent croon to familiar hits by Otis Redding (“I Can’t Turn You Loose” with a twist of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”), The Temptations (“Get Ready,” “My Girl”), The Four Tops (“Baby I Need Your Loving”) and Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”).

Tommy Hunt turned 80 in 2013, and remains active on the club scene in his adopted English homeland.  A Sign of the Times: The Spark Recordings is a testament to his enduring talent.  It’s been produced and compiled by John Reed, and has been remastered by Simon Murphy.  It’s available now from Cherry Red and Shout! Records, and can be ordered below!

Tommy Hunt, A Sign of the Times: The Spark Recordings (Shout! CD 81, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.  )

  1. Loving on the Losing Side
  2. Upon My Soul
  3. Get Out
  4. A Miracle Like You
  5. You Got Me Where You Want Me
  6. A Sign of the Times
  7. Sign on the Dotted Line
  8. Loving You Is
  9. Crackin’ Up
  10. Help Me Make It Through the Night
  11. Sunshine Girl
  12. Never Can Say Goodbye
  13. One Fine Morning
  14. I Can’t Turn You Loose
  15. Get Ready
  16. My Girl
  17. Knock on Wood
  18. Never Can Say Goodbye
  19. Help Me Make It Through the Night
  20. Crackin’ Up
  21. Baby I Need Your Loving

Tracks 1-13 from A Sign of the Times, Spark SRLP 120, 1976
Track 14 from Spark single SRL 1148, 1976
Tracks 15-21 from Live at the Wigan Casino, SRLP 117, 1976

Written by Joe Marchese

January 16, 2014 at 09:42

Posted in News, Reissues, Tommy Hunt

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