Howlin' Wilf and the Vee-Jays, led by James Hunter (of People Gonna Talkfame), came onto the scene in the mid-1980s and was together for only a brief time before disbanding. A pity, since their strong, polished homage to blues, early rock, and soul really shines on Cry Wilf! from 1986. Hunter plays blues harp, guitar, and sings, while guitarist Dot and bassist Tony Hilton round out the crew.
Cry Wilf! is basically a cover album with a few original tunes thrown in; the reverse of what Hunter would include on his three solo albums ...Believe What I Say (1996), Kick It Around(2001), and People Gonna Talk(2006), including songs by Lee Dorsey (Ya Ya), Barbara Lewis (Hello Stranger), Ike Turner (Get Over It Baby), Walter Jacobs (Boom Boom), and Willie Dixon (Mellow Down Easy). The original songs Got A Thing For You, Same Old Nuthin', Can't Stand It No More and Shake It hold up well compared to the established classics in their fidelity to retro songwriting and instrumentation.
Hunter plays a mean blues harp, a talent which I didn't know he possessed based on his later solo work and stints with Van Morrison. His guitar chops are also solid, at times borrowing from established bluesmen, at times straying into Chuck Berry territory and even a touch of surf guitar. Hunter's raspy, soulful voice is perfectly suited to these tales of hard living (and loving), and his band is tight (the only welcome addition would be keyboards/Hammond organ).
Hunter is more guttural, more emotional, and less composed than on his solo albums, where he spends more time cultivating a soul blues persona a la Sam Cooke, and I found this grittier, soulful side of James a pleasant departure from his carefully crafted ballads such as Mollena on more recent releases. It's amazing to hear him when he was just starting out on his musical career; not bad for a boy from Colchester, England who grew up in a trailer in an onion field and worked on the railroad before pursuing his passion for retro soul, blues, and R&B full-time. This is some amazing stuff that deserves a listen, particularly if you're a fan of vintage '50s-'60s blues, R&B, and retro soul.