Herbert Hunter was the son of Baptist minister and came from a large family. As a young child he started singing for his father in church with his brother Rufus (who was later to record for Ted Jarrett and Bob Holmes label Ref-O-Ree).
Jarrett first encountered Hunter in 1957 singing outside a bar on Jefferson Street, whilst Hunter was attempting to get noticed and obtain work. Jarrett saw his potential talent and befriended him. Jarrett taught Hunter songs on the piano and eventually found him a job at the Del Morocco on Jefferson Street.
In the late 1950s Ted Jarrett had a hit as a songwriter with "You Can Make It If You Try" recorded by Gene Allison. The record was pushed by WLAC and received national distribution on Vee Jay, reaching number three on the R&B Billboard chart. Jarrett put together a revue on the back of this. He and Allison together with Earl Gaines and Christine Kittrell took to the road. He also took Herbert Hunter with him as a general help and let him stand in when they were short of a singer. Jarrett continued to be impressed by his talent. It wasn't until after they returned from Texas that Ted found out Herbert was a minor at only 15 years of age.
Hunter spent a lot of time - too much time, he felt - singing cover versions. Indeed this was how the Spar and Hit 45s came about. Both labels featured affordable versions of current popular hits, sold at a fraction of the cost of the original songs (Hit 45s at 69 cents each or two for a dollar; compared to 99 cents for a regular chart 45). Around 50,000 copies were sold of Hunter's version of the Ray Charles classic "Your Cheatin' Heart" alone. As Hit 45 expert Paul Urbahns recounts: "Leroy Jones was, like many on Hit, a fictitious name used for recordings by Herbert Hunter, Thomas Henry and Bobby Russell. Seventy-five percent of the Leroy Jones 45s from the early years were actually Herbert Hunter. If it's a low pitched voice, it's likely to be Herbert."
In all, Hunter made around twenty 45s for Hit, Spar and another label, Poncello, both in his own name and under the Leroy Jones pseudonym. Like Hit, Spar released a fair share of cover versions of popular songs. Turnover in sales were so high that Spar was able to get a reduced rate from the publishers for licensing the right to use cover versions, hence why the labels could afford to set the retail price so low. Bill Beasley and the Bubis brothers owned Spar, previously owning Tennessee Records and Republic. Ted Jarrett was brought in as the staff writer by Bubis and Beasley to produce the black artists, including Hunter. This proved to be a financial success for the label and for Jarrett, allowing him to start a couple of his own labels, including Poncello and eventually taking Herbert Hunter with him.
Around April 1968, Bill Beasley opened Spar Recording Studios. On the opening of the studio, Beasley reported for Billboard magazine: "we will be the only 8 track cartridge duplicator in the south. As well as our own label, we provide custom recordings, and mastering sessions for Bobby Russell and Buzz Cason who are doing things for Amy-Mala and Elf." Jarrett would continue to use Spar studios for recording, manufacture and distribution. From a northern soul perspective, Jarrett and another Nashville songwriter Mac Gayden provided the goods for Hunter at Poncello. "Wasn't It Wonderful To Dream" (Poncello 714) is the first one of interest, from 1961. Jimmy Fran appears on writing credits, although this was in fact a Jarrett original - Fran was reported to be the chauffeur for the Gene Allison tour. The song was an early soul sound, simple in melodic structure, much in the same vein as Ben E. King recordings though more up-tempo.
Two releases on Spar are particularly worthy of reference. "I Was Born To Love You" (Spar 9009), written by Mac Gayden in 1966, has long been an established northern soul classic. Along with Buzz Cason, Gayden may be most remembered as the man behind Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love", although his song writing activities also included The Valentines "Breakaway" and Joe Simon's "When" both on Sound Stage 7. The R&B flipside to Spar 9009, called "Push Away From The Table", has also been attracting attention in recent years. "Happy Go Lucky" (Spar 741) is a lesser known Motownesque Hunter track, played at Stafford Top of The World northern soul all-nighters in the 1980s by DJ Guy Hennigan. "The Big Oak Tree" (Poncello 7701) is another big production number, similar in structure to "I Was Born To Love You".
In later years, Hunter continued to perform, and occasionally record. In the 1990s he recorded the "The Soul and the Beat" CD for Ted Jarrett's label (T-Jaye Records 8030), which comprised a short collection of contemporary songs. He also gained the attention of European blues fans, through performing at the Blues Estafette Festival in Utrecht, Holland. Quality unreleased material has also been unearthed. "The Sound of a Crying Man" surfaced via the 1998 CD Music City Soul (CDKEND 157); a compilation of Jarrett associated recordings. An LP acetate/test pressing also exists of Herbert Hunter songs. Whilst largely featuring soul covers, the LP includes at least one worthy original track "Here Stand(s) The Weeper".
From House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle, Available in the new book section.